An open letter addressed to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and incoming Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones is bringing attention to deep-seated issues its author said are felt by a “devalued and disrespected faculty” at the historically Black institution in Washington.
The letter’s author, who claims to be a faculty member, is unknown. But the individual’s pleas for higher pay and better working conditions have resonated with faculty without tenure – the job protection measure that brought Hannah-Jones to Howard after her fallout with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which initially hired her without the status.
The letter, posted last week to Medium.com, outlined grievances that have been the focus of a fledgling union of more than 100 non-tenure-track faculty, including lecturers and master instructors. Specifically, it has reignited calls to raise salaries, as well as end policies that require lecturers to reapply for their jobs at the end of each school year and leave their teaching position after seven years.
“Lecturers are basically going on faith that they’re going to be rehired the following year,” said Sean Pears, a lecturer in the school’s English department. “For me, [the letter] was an articulation of frustration, and it was frustration I could understand.”
The concerns are the basis of ongoing negotiations between Howard and the union, but some instructors are disappointed in what they say has been a lack of progress. Now, amid heightened visibility at the school – spurred by recent high-profile hires and an influx of donations – employees hope the institution will change.
“For 150 years Howard was systematically underresourced, and I think it is finally getting the resources that it rightfully deserves,” Pears said. “So it is the appropriate time to address some of the structural inequality internal to the organization.”
Howard employs more than 920 full-time faculty, about half of whom are not on the tenure track, said Frank Tramble, a spokesman for the school. As is the case at most universities, these instructors tend to teach many of the school’s entry-level and general education courses.
They also write letters of recommendation, mentor students and hold office hours like their tenure-track colleagues.
“You end up being treated as a professor regardless. You end up doing the same kind of work,” said one lecturer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. But, the employee added, the treatment from the university is unequal.
The instructor has filled several positions since 2002, a solution he has found to outlive the seven-year term limit imposed on lecturers. He started his teaching career as an adjunct, then moved on to a full-time lecturer position. After seven years, he left the university and returned as an adjunct.
The instructor is now in a different department and just completed the first year of a new lecturer position.
“It’s challenging,” he said about the arrangement, but added that his department has been supportive.
Tramble said officials are aware of the issues and committed to trying to resolve the situation. On the issue of pay, he said non-tenure-track faculty that are outside the bargaining unit received a 3 percent raise during the spring semester. Another salary increase is planned for the fall.
Tramble added that the seven-year term limit some faculty have complained about is common at many universities and that Howard “encourages professors to be research-driven and on tenure-track paths.” Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for example, imposes an eight-year appointment limit for instructors in its non-tenure-track ranks.
But these long-held policies have recently come under scrutiny, and contingent faculty at institutions throughout the country have become increasingly vocal about issues including unpredictable teaching schedules and low pay. The majority of university instructors are not on the tenure track – more than 70 percent, according to the American Association of University Professors – but their demands for change are often neglected by university leadership.
At Howard, the unionized faculty are hopeful. In interviews, they said they were drawn to the campus of more than 9,000 students because of its history and reputation as an epicenter of Black higher education. Many instructors are alumni and said they felt compelled to give back to the institution that helped mold them.
But, under current conditions, some faculty feel disposable, said Cyrus Hampton, a Howard graduate and master instructor in the English department. Hampton started as a lecturer; his current position frees him of the seven-year teaching cap and his contract expires after three years, instead of one.
“Every year, we really aren’t told we’ve been rehired until basically, we start teaching,” Hampton said, referring to his time as a lecturer. “The last couple of years, people don’t get reappointment letters until the beginning of the semester.”
These types of contracts are somewhat common at four-year institutions, according to data from the AAUP, a national organization of faculty and other academics. On average, 38 percent of full-time non-tenure-track faculty have annual contracts and 58 percent are on multiyear or indefinite contracts, according to the data published in 2018.
But, according to the national association’s report on contingent workers, “for the most part, both full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty roles are insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and inadequate due process protections,” and “in general, longer contracts offer more security for individuals and stability for institutions and students.”
Those concerns were echoed by some Howard employees fighting for greater job protection.
“Even if the department wants to keep you, even if you’re doing really well, you must be let go after seven years. We’ve seen tons of good colleagues have to leave the university because of that,” Hampton said. “I just wish that the administration of the university would listen to the people doing a big chunk of the teaching.”
A five-year instructor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, is among those pushing for change at Howard. “The idea that, number one, you have to reapply for your job every year is unconscionable,” the employee said.
The instructor said he got involved in the union last school year, spurred by “my own obvious disappointment with the conditions at Howard.” But the slow progress can be discouraging.
“It’s tedious,” the faculty member said, “putting in all this effort and not seeing any fruits of your labor.”
Faculty began to formally organize around these issues in 2017, and voted to join a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. But their efforts to negotiate new workplace terms have not been embraced by Howard officials, employees said.
Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president, had encouraged employees to reject the union. “In my view, discussions with a third-party union that has no known track record representing full-time faculty and which charges high rates for its services, is not a prudent method of problem solving,” Frederick wrote to employees in November 2017. “That is why I encourage you to vote NO in this election.”
And as employees prepared to vote, Provost Anthony K. Wutoh told employees to learn about the potential consequences of forming a union, adding that “the introduction of a union would, in our view, present a barrier to effectively communicate with our faculty – a privilege that we appreciate and value, and by which we all benefit,” according to a letter. The employees still voted to form the union.
Tramble declined to comment on these specific incidents.
As negotiations continue, many hope to see pay raises. During the 2018-2019 school year, lecturers earned an average salary of $49,879, according to a salary database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Howard is among a handful of institutions receiving an annual appropriation from Congress, and has since the 1920s. That appropriation during fiscal 2020 was about $240 million.
But the school has also faced financial struggles, resulting in part in salaries that lag behind other private universities in the District. One lecturer, a father of two who makes $55,000 at Howard, said he has additional jobs outside the university to make ends meet.
Several faculty members fear that the university’s policies are pushing good instructors away.
“This poor treatment has been a factor in the decision of some of our best minds to leave Howard, especially those descendants of slavery in the U.S.,” said Marcus Alfred, chair of the faculty senate and a tenured professor in the department of physics and astronomy. “It’s heartbreaking what my colleagues have gone through, and what losing them means for our students and the African American community.”
Still, many hope newfound attention on the subject will change the university for the better.
“I grew up with Howard as a pinnacle of education. We are at this university because we care about it,” Hampton said. “These slow, destabilizing, awkward administrative practices – why protect those when it could be better?”