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Howard Faculty Fights for Fair Compensation

Photo of Sean Pears Courtesy of Howard University

In the shadows, an outcry from Howard’s faculty fizzled softly in the wake of the university’s announcement of two new professors. Days after Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and award-winning writer alumnus Ta-Nehisi Coates jointly announced in July they were joining the faculty of Howard University, an existing Howard faculty member immediately took to social media and published a scathing memo publicly criticizing the way Howard treated its faculty.

The blog post on Medium entitled “An open letter to Nikole Hannah-Jones from a Howard Faculty member,” is authored by an alleged professor who wrote under the pseudonym of Imani Light. The piece intricately detailed what the writer described as unfair working conditions most lecture professors at Howard face. 

“Each year, Howard professors working as Lecturers earn salaries which are the lowest among peer and aspirational peer institutions,” wrote Light. “Lecturers who hold doctorates from the most rigorous programs in the nation earn $48,000/yr at Howard, less than a first-year Kindergarten teacher in Washington DC Public Schools who holds a bachelor’s degree and just graduated in May 2021.”

As the letter continued, readers were able to identify the outrage and anguish seeping through the screen.

“Howard values those who usher students toward complicated understandings of theory and method less than the city in which it is located values those who teach children the difference between the colors orange and red,” Light wrote. “This fact, ‘hits different,’ as our students say, in a city where an average rent near Georgia Avenue begins at $2,500/month and two marquee faculty members are recruited to the University under the largesse of over $20 million in donations.”

The new hire Hannah-Jones was originally denied tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the university’s board of trustees though the last two people in her position were granted tenure upon their appointment. Instead she was offered a five year contract with the option for tenure review. 

A tenured position is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as financial exigency or program discontinuation. Typically professors follow academic career paths toward earning tenure while lecturers have another career and are hired to teach a set course. Hannah Jones was set to work as a lecturer while maintaining her job as a reporter with the New York Times.

Nearly 40 faculty members from the journalism school signed an online statement calling for the decision to be reversed, stating the failure to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones “unfairly moves the goal posts and violates longstanding norms and established processes.” The statement added, “This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman dean, Hussman faculty and university.”

Continual protests by students and faculty led to reconsideration in a special meeting with the board of trustees. In a 9-4 vote Hannah-Jones was approved for tenure. But instead of taking the position, Jones and Coates had quietly struck a deal to join Howard’s faculty. Coates is the author of Between the World and Me, The Water Dancer and We Were Eight Years in Power.

While Howard was celebrating its new hires, the Howard faculty member published the letter criticizing how the university treated its existing professors. 

“By our records ‘Imani Light’ is not the name of a faculty member at Howard,” Frank Tramble, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer said. “However, it is important to understand that there are 1,000 faculty members at Howard and the union represented in that letter represents just over 100 non-tenured faculty members.”

In the Medium Letter, the writer also outlined how, in addition to low pay, lecturing professors must re-apply for their job each year at the conclusion of the spring semester. However, the writer added, most decisions about reappointment weren’t rendered until the fall once classes have already begun. Those professors who choose to stay with the University are often forced to leave due to the seven year cap on employment for non-tenure track professors. Under this policy, Howard famously parted ways with former faculty members author Toni Morrison and R&B singer Roberta Flack according to the letter.

In 2018, lecturing professors decided to unionize with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 in a collective effort to create an effective line of communication with administration. More than 130 full-time faculty members joined. However, they were met with opposition.

“The University believes that selecting a union to be the exclusive spokesperson for our non-tenure track full-time faculty would disrupt the collegial nature of our relationship with our faculty, interfere with University governance, and potentially undermine the shared values that are an integral part of the Howard community that has been painstakingly established over the past 150 years,” said Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony K. Wutoh in a public statement.

After the first few public statements from Howard’s President and Provost, members of the bargaining unit claimed the university hired union buster lawyers who have prolonged the negotiation process.

“They’ll cancel last minute on a lot of meetings and continue to provide an incomplete list of the bargaining unit, names are always missing,” said union member and Howard alumnus Cyrus Hampton.

He began working in the English department in the fall of 2017 and said he faced challenges ever since. 

“This letter aligns with the experience I’ve had, when I first started teaching at Howard I didn’t receive the first two months of paychecks,” said Hampton. “The pay at Howard is a real crunch, a lot of people quietly take on jobs on the side.”

However it is extremely rare to see others speak out. Many are uneasy about the consequences that may ensue after sharing their circumstances.

“There is a culture of fear, people are afraid of losing their jobs; people love working at Howard so much, they don’t want to lose this opportunity,” said Hampton.

Nonetheless, numerous beloved professors have had to move on while awaiting new terms from negotiations.

“It’s been three and a half years since we have been bargaining but many of the colleagues have had to leave due to the 7 year rule because they can’t build a legacy or career here so they go where they can be appreciated and contribute long term,” said Hampton. 

The university says that its cap on employment is common among research institutions. And that they are actively working to better serve their faculty.

“We cannot think of faculty as monolithic, there is a narrow range of individuals affected by the 7 year cap,” Tramble said. “It is not unique to Howard and happens at many other universities.”

Yet Georgetown University and George Washington University, the only other research universities located in DC do not have this stipulation.

“I didn’t know about the seven year rule before coming to Howard and I’ve taught at George Washington, University of Buffalo, and University of Nairobi,” said Howard lecturer Sean Pears.

Pears has also attested to the accusations made in the anonymous letter. Pears said he did not receive a renewal contract after the completion of the spring semester and is not sure when he will. In similar fashion, he cites being underpaid as another hardship.

“The funding Howard has received has put them in a place where they can pay fair working wages,” Pears said. “This is what you want to see when they receive donations.”

And this is what the university affirms they are working to do.

“We are trying to push salaries in a positive direction, in the spring Howard gave 3 percent raises to faculty and we intend to raise wages to the median average salary,” Tramble said. “We are still engaged in conversations with the union and actively trying to resolve the situation; this isn’t a situation Howard wants to be in either.”

Both parties agree that their interest is in creating an environment conducive to nurturing and educating students. They are hopeful to settle an agreement soon.

“We aren’t here because we want to create trouble and stir things up but because we want to be better,” Hampton said. “I’m excited to have them [Coates and Hannah-Jones] and I hope they keep their eyes and ears open as to what’s going on with their colleagues and students and convince those at the top to listen to those who want to see the university grow to be better than it already is.”