Two Academia Horror Stories out of UC Berkeley

Two stories came out of UC Berkeley over the weekend that will make you question your opinion of academia — or maybe reinforce your opinion.

The first story comes from Michael Eisen’s blog and has a bad news, good news, bad news flavor. The bad news is that a prominent astronomy professor at Berkeley named Geoffrey Marcy has been accused of “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping” in a complaint to the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination filed by four women.

The good news is that the process worked as intended! An investigation concluded that Marcy was guilty, and the results of the investigation were made public. The matter was not swept under the rug. The university did not attack the women. Hopefully this will mean that other victims of harassment at Berkeley will feel comfortable coming forward in the future.

The bad news is that the process worked as intended! Marcy issued a non-apology apology, and it seems that he will face no further repercussions for his actions. None. This is a real win-win for the university. It presents the veneer of justice, thereby maintaining the university’s ability to present itself as a committed champion of victims. But at the same time, it does not have to deal with the consequences of losing a prominent faculty member — or doing anything really, besides making him feel mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes.

The message to faculty seems fairly clear. You should not sexually harass or assault your subordinates. But if you do, ¯\_(?)_/¯.

Story number two comes from the UC Berkeley math department. Alexander Coward has a long post about why he is leaving his teaching position there. Basically, he is being forced out of the position because his teaching is too successful. Compared with others in the department, he teaches larger numbers of students, receives higher evaluations, and produces better results (in terms of student performance moving forward).

A department that cared about teaching its students might look at this situation and ask, “How can we replicate what he is doing? Maybe adopt his techniques across the department?” But of course, a real department says, “Oh no! He’s making the rest of us look bad. Stop him!”

Now this is, of course, just one side of the story. However, it rings true to me, and it is difficult to imagine what additional perspective the department might offer that would make this look like anything other than gross malfeasance on their part.

One of the interesting parts comes at the end of the post, which points out that this is not just a question of bruised egos:

In the April 18th, 2014 memo to me then Chair Ogus wrote: “We explained to you before you accepted the position that the idea of employing a full-time lecturer is controversial in our department.” This raises the question of why it was controversial. It was controversial because the way the Mathematics Department justifies its size on campus is through the teaching of large service courses for other majors. I have been told by Craig Evans that around 15,000 students take classes with the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department each year. On the other hand, mathematicians typically do not bring in giant grants like experimental scientists, and compared to most other departments that do not bring in super-grants the Mathematics Department is large. The Mathematics Department uses its privileged role in providing service teaching for undergraduates in all the sciences and social sciences to justify its size and all the trappings that go with that like funding and office space. The problem is that their reliance on teaching to justify size and resources is not commensurate with a commitment to doing a good job.

 

Indeed, it is an open secret on the UC Berkeley campus that the administration and other departments are jolly cross with the Mathematics Department for not preparing students adequately. The argument used by the Mathematics Department in response to this is to say something like “It’s easy for you, you teach these cool subjects that students are interested in and choose to do because it’s their chosen major. Take it from us. Teaching these kids calculus is just impossible. That’s why our student evaluations are terrible and students aren’t prepared for your courses.” The argument then concludes, as articulated by a member of Senate Faculty in his response to my open letter of December 15, 2014, something like: “Give us more money and more resources and we’ll do better.”

 

Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument, and that is why so many people conspired to make it not so, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me.

This is a scam you see everywhere — the expansion of the national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11 comes to mind. If you do your job poorly, you can blame it on not enough resources. If you can keep that cycle going, you can get paid more and more to do less and less. It’s good work if you can get it.