Professionalism/Alexander Coward and the UC Berkeley Department of Mathematics
Alexander Coward began teaching calculus for the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department in the fall, 2013. Coward's teaching methods, including formative assessment, are considered unconventional. During a union strike, on November 19th, 2013, Coward sent an email, which leaked and went viral, to his students explaining why he would not cancel class, namely because he believed their education was necessary to face a complicated world. On October 31, 2014, the former Chair of the Mathematics Department, Arthur Ogus, told Coward that his contract would not be renewed after June 2016. Coward resigned on January 1, 2015, and founded an online educational company, EDeeU, in August 2016.
Professorship at UC Berkeley
Coward's Employment and Teaching Methods
In 2013, UC Berkeley began a two-year experiment to recruit lecturers who would do an "outstanding job" teaching lower level courses. Berkeley hired Alexander Coward in July 2013, and he began teaching that fall. Coward used uncommon methods, including encouraging his students by email, assigning handwritten problems instead of textbooks problems, and using evidence-based practices like formative assessment rather than traditional methods.
Student and Professor Evaluations
A statistical study showed that Coward's methods worked for his students. Students from Coward's Math 1A course performed on average 0.17 grade points higher than their peers in the subsequent course, Math 1B. Also, his students gave him outstanding evaluations. In a letter addressed to the Mathematics Department, Teaching Evaluation Coordinator Jennifer Pinney revealed that Coward's student evaluations were "markedly higher than those of any of the regular faculty who taught Math 1A during the 6 year period ending in Spring 2013." She continues, "Dr. Coward's scores are higher than any of the scores earned by regular faculty for at least the last 18 years." As of early May 2020, the grievance containing this letter and the aforementioned evidence is not documentable because the hosting site was not renewed.
Conflict and Termination
Despite his students' success and satisfaction, Coward was unpopular with the Mathematics Department leadership. The former department chair, Arthur Ogus, repeatedly urged Coward to conform to department norms. In a September 2013 email, Ogus said to Coward that "it is very important that you not deviate too far from department norms," and addressed a memo in April 2014 stating, "I hope and expect that you will be able to align more with our standards." Despite these reminders, Coward failed to align to the leadership's satisfaction, and in October 2014, Coward learned that his employment would be terminated June 2016. After receiving his review file, Coward filed a formal grievance because he discovered certain, positive materials were absent. Among the omitted materials were evidence that he had remarkable student evaluations, that his students performed better in subsequent courses, and that faculty reviews of his lectures were overwhelmingly positive. In his grievance, Coward requested that misrepresenting materials be removed and replaced with the omitted, positive material and that he have a fair reappointment process. However, Coward left the university before the suit concluded.
Evidence-Based Practices and Formative Assessment
Coward used evidence-based practices, particularly formative assessment which uses assessments for feedback rather than accountability or certifying competence. Coward cited a review which claimed formative assessment requires short-term assessment cycles and “changes in the relationship among the teacher, the student, and the subject discipline.” When implemented improperly, formative assessment can hinder learning.  Coward weighed his students' final grades mostly or entirely from the final exam. Coward condemned grading homework on completeness because it “reinforces a culture of low expectations” and “harms student intrinsic motivation.” Coward made this claim in an open letter to the department on December 15, 2014 which is no longer published online.
From a normal teaching perspective, implementation of formative assessment is risky. Often grades and deadlines drive student behavior. Without graded assignments, students may disengage. One student said Coward’s class was “very poorly structured [with] no quizzes,” and that Coward’s liberal methods gave teaching assistants a “carte blanche to be as lazy as they want.” His students' reviews reiterate the need for “self-motivation” because their grade depended mostly on the final exam. Black & William (1998) claim a challenge to formative assessment is that many students are content to just “get by.” Coward's case may show formative assessment benefits students on average, but making it the norm will incur some costs. In established professions like teaching, new evidence rarely shows that traditional methods were wholly inadequate, and so implementing new practices can be difficult.
The department's main gripe against formative assessment is that it goes against the department norms. In his open letter, Coward says that department members told him that the formative assessment research is “not relevant,” and that “department norms are more important." Coward also claims that “norms are policies, though without the structure, transparency and accountability.” Coward argues that norms only make sense if the department's higher goal is “money, status and control.” In other words, mediocre teaching allows the department to demand more funding.
Professionalism and Ethics
University of UC Berkeley’s Faculty Code of Conduct
The University of UC Berkely has a public Faculty Code of Conduct, which lays out the University’s ethical and disciplinary policies. The preamble begins with, “the University seeks to provide and sustain an environment conducive to sharing, extending, and critically examining knowledge and values, and to furthering the search for wisdom.” In Part I – Professional Rights of Faculty, the code states that “in support of the University’s central functions as an institution of higher learning, a major responsibility of the administration is to protect and encourage the faculty in its teaching, learning, research, and public service.” In Part II – Professional Responsibilities, Ethical Principles, and Unacceptable Faculty Conduct, Section C: The University, the code states, “as a member of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision,” (emphasis added). In Section A: Teaching and Students, the code emphasizes that “the integrity of the faculty-student relationship is the foundation of the University’s educational mission.”
Professional Obligations to Students
Coward’s professional obligations to his students, as outlined by the Faculty Code of Conduct, are effective teaching and fostering the faculty-student relationship. His students' higher average performance in subsequent courses indicate that Coward was an effective teacher. In terms of the faculty-student relationship, Coward consistently scored higher than colleagues on students' course evaluations. He was beloved by his students and managed to educate them well.
During a union strike, Coward refused to cancel class. Instead, on November 13, 2013, he emailed his students to express his appreciation for them, writing, "I’m blown away every time I talk to you. . .You really are amazing. . .I’m talking about all of you. It’s a privilege to be your professor." He continued to explain that "in order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education." He believed that their education was crucial for them to face and shape such a complicated world. He refused to endanger such a vital tool. After he was fired, he hosted free, unofficial, cafe office hours to continue helping his students learn. He did this for love of teaching and not for his career, which he had already lost. A Change.org petition to keep Coward at Berkeley had 201 supporters, again indicating he was well loved.
Professional Obligations to Colleagues and to the University
Coward also had professional obligations to his colleagues. As a member of a department, he must build up, not undermine, the institution. He was a team member, not a rogue lecturer, and so he should have shared his insight and techniques with his colleagues but he supposedly did not. According to Adam Merberg, a former colleague of Coward, “the departmental report on Coward's work notes ‘[Coward] has not yet made an attempt to share his teaching methods or materials with other instructors of lower-division courses. We had hoped that this would be a useful contribution to the department.’”
He had an obligation to uphold the department's standards because an institution must have consistent methods and expectations for students and faculty alike. The former department chair, Arthur Ogus, expressed these concerns to Coward, saying "[Your class evaluations] reveal some significant differences between your practices and what has been typical in our department [...] I hope and expect that you will be able to align more with our standards [...]" This expectation to align with department standards was presumably for consistency across the department. Coward subverted department expectations and admitted, “I am causing problems because students are not signing up for other Professors' classes on account of me.”
Richard Muller, another UC Berkeley lecturer, thought Coward seemed entitled to his position, saying, "It was an honor to be a lecturer at an institution such as U.C. Berkeley, not a right.” Nils Braakmann, a Professor of Economics at Newcastle University, pointed out that Coward was a teaching-only faculty, and so it was his job to spend all of his time with his students. It was unfair for Coward to compete with professors who have other obligations, such as research and administrative work. Braakmann commented, “Teaching only faculty pretend they're the only ones who care about students [...] conveniently ignoring that [Coward is] also the only person in the department who's paid to spend 100% of his time with students. This is a problem as it makes everyone else looks bad, even though everyone else is just doing what they are being paid to do.”
Job vs. Profession
The department viewed Coward’s position as a job with mandated tasks rather than a profession. Craig Evans, interim chair of the department, said “If you had a job at McDonald's and came along with all these new ideas, how long do you think you'd carry on working there?” Michael Hutchings, a department professor, compared Coward's behavior to someone making pink stop signs and then claiming that his “employer felt threatened by [his] superior stop signs.” These analogies suggest that Coward’s job was not a place for creativity.
The university and opponents to Coward mention the fact that he was always on a temporary contract; thus, his termination was routine. While this is true, associate union director Bill Quirk says, “Mr. Coward teaches calculus courses for which there is an indefinite need. Nothing temporary here, and yet, UC often insists on churning lecturers out of these positions.” Coward similarly wonders how far back “the practice of systematically removing the best teachers” goes. In temporary positions, norms and policies can be threatening to lecturers because their positions can be terminated without question.
Coward reiterates that his primary concern is the education of his students. He believed he was in a professional position to serve his students rather than just filling a job. For Coward, it is incomprehensible why the department terminated a lecturer that improved the students' performance.
A professional’s responsibilities to their employer, colleagues, and clients can conflict. Employers should attempt to reduce these conflicts. In this case, Coward's responsibilities to his students and colleagues seemed to be at odds. Coward decided that his first responsibility was to his students but thought that the department undermined him with rigid expectations more apt to a job, not a profession. While Coward did not serve his colleagues or all of his students perfectly, both the department and Coward failed to collaborate.
As of May 2020, Coward teaches online through his company EDeeU. Although providing education, Coward can neither provide a prestigious degree such as that from UC Berkeley nor easily collaborate with professors. UC Berkeley may benefit from reexamining its priorities and working with professionals like Alexander Coward so that students and faculty alike can flourish.
- Coward, A. (2015, October 11). Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department. ALEXANDER COWARD. https://web.archive.org/web/20191031050454/https://alexandercoward.com/writing/2017/4/17/blowing-the-whistle-on-the-uc-berkeley-mathematics-department
- Coward, A. (n.d.) Wrongful Termination Grievance. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58e538bd03596eb83c51671e/t/59557b501b631b6c9b4a2017/1498774368250/GrievanceRedacted.pdf (Unable to be retrieved as of 2020, May 6)
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2007). What Does Research Say the Benefits of Formative Assessment Are? https://www.nctm.org/uploadedFiles/Research_and_Advocacy/research_brief_and_clips/Research_brief_05_-_Formative_Assessment.pdf
- Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam (1998) Assessment and Classroom Learning, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5:1, 7-74, DOI: 10.1080/0969595980050102
- berkmathstudent. (2015, Oct 12). Re: Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics [Forum Comment]. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10372790
- Coward, A. (2014, Dec 15). Open letter regarding teaching in the Mathematics Department. https://alexandercoward.com/s/OpenLetter.pdf (Unable to be retrieved as of 2020, May 4)
- Alexander Coward. Rate My Professors https://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=1835732
- > University of UC Berkeley. (2017). The Faculty Code of Conduct as Approved by the Assembly of the Academic Senate (Code of Professional Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct of University Faculty, and University Disciplinary Procedures). https://www.ucop.edu/academic-personnel-programs/_files/apm/apm-015.pdf
- Roll, N. (2017, September 8). Not on the Payroll, but Still on Campus. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/08/alexander-coward-whose-teaching-approach-was-loved-students-not-colleagues-still
- Bai, K. (2015). Keep Professor Alexander Coward at UC Berkeley. Change.Org. https://www.change.org/p/keep-professor-alexander-coward-at-uc-berkeley
- Merberg, A. (2015, October 16). What do other professors and academics think of Alexander Coward’s dismissal from UC Berkeley and his response to it? Quora. https://www.quora.com/What-do-other-professors-and-academics-think-of-Alexander-Cowards-dismissal-from-UC-Berkeley-and-his-response-to-it
- Muller, R. (2015, October 13). What do other professors and academics think of Alexander Coward’s dismissal from UC Berkeley and his response to it? Quora. https://www.quora.com/What-do-other-professors-and-academics-think-of-Alexander-Cowards-dismissal-from-UC-Berkeley-and-his-response-to-it
- Braakmann, N. (2015, October 16). What do other professors and academics think of Alexander Coward’s dismissal from UC Berkeley and his response to it? Quora. https://www.quora.com/What-do-other-professors-and-academics-think-of-Alexander-Cowards-dismissal-from-UC-Berkeley-and-his-response-to-it
- Weiner, C. (2015, Oct 19). Deviating from the norm. The Daily Californian https://www.dailycal.org/2015/10/19/coward-grievance
- Martin, G. (2015, Oct 12). Not Adding Up: Math Lecturer Behind Viral Email Set to Lose His UC Berkeley Job. California Magazine. https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2015-10-20/not-adding-math-lecturer-behind-viral-email-set-lose-his-uc