Professor Cyrus Hampton addresses a group of supporters at a rally over faculty working conditions and wages. (Chanel Cain/HUNS)
Professor Cyrus Hampton addresses a group of supporters at a rally over faculty working conditions and wages. (Chanel Cain/HUNS)

In the days and hours before faculty members at Howard University [HU] called off their strike, they engaged in contract negotiations that participants described as showing great promise in achieving goals they set more than three years ago when they unionized.

By the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 23, the group of more than 300 adjunct professors and non-tenured full-time faculty members announced they reached a tentative agreement with Jackson P.C., the law firm representing HU in contract negotiations.

Union members, represented by SEIU Local 500, are scheduled to vote on the deal in the coming weeks. For the time being, adjunct and non-tenured faculty members will continue fulfilling their duties.

In the latest juncture of this movement, non-tenured full-time faculty members and adjunct professors had been actively engaged in negotiations while planning for a strike. At one point, they led an on-campus protest that elicited widespread student support.

Those heavily involved in the negotiations said they’ve experienced hurdles in the form of HU’s attorneys and media relations department that paints a picture vastly different from what faculty members have experienced.

“People are tired of being in an abusive relationship with their employer. Howard University has strategically tried to break up this union with JacksonLewis P.C. as their spokesperson,” said Ricky Ramón, a non-tenured faculty member, as he mentioned the law firm engaging faculty members in contract negotiations.

Ramón, a full-time lecturer in his fifth year at HU’s Department of Theatre Arts, makes $50,000 per year, an amount much less than what other universities and K-12 institutions in the D.C. metropolitan area offer.

In the last two years, he hasn’t received a raise, even as university officials increased his course load. For extra income, Ramon serves as a stage production professional for a local theater company.

As a full-time non-tenured faculty member, Ramon has to reapply for his job every year with no guarantee of being rehired. By his seventh year, Ramon and the more than 130 other “temporary employees” face the possibility of termination, regardless of their performance.

The 200 adjunct professors unionizing with the full-time non-tenured faculty members receive less than $4,000 to teach a semester-long course. They teach more than 200 courses a year, most of which represent classes required for students in pursuit of a degree.

Since unionizing with SEIU Local 500, HU’s full-time non-tenured faculty members and adjunct professors have brought to light these conditions in their negotiations with JacksonLewis P.C. One goal that has caused much contention centers on the elimination of “the seven-year rule.”

By Monday night, faculty members carried on with negotiations even as they planned the strike. This followed what faculty members described as an impasse and continuation of bad faith bargaining.

“JacksonLewis stalled negotiations and said no in every way you can say no,” Ramón said. “Even after the protest, they tried to scold us for asking for a meeting with the president and provost without going through them. HU continues to lie and gaslight us about what they have done. They haven’t given any non-tenured track faculty raises.”

In a statement, HU decried the notion of automatically awarding tenure to full-time non-tenured track faculty members. Administrators said those faculty members wouldn’t have gone through a rigorous process to attain tenured status. In defending the “seven-year rule,” administrators said it protects the university’s designation as a research institution while ensuring financial sustainability. They also pointed out that non-tenured full time instructors and adjunct professors have flexibility not afforded to professors who conduct research.

Solutions proposed by the university include encouraging full-time nontenured faculty members to apply for tenure track and master instructor positions, in addition to career status appointment through which faculty members’ reappointment would be approved by board members until they voluntarily leave the university.

They’ve also brought forth salary increase proposals for adjunct faculty members and full-time nontenured faculty members.

However, several advocates for the union have taken to social media in criticism of HU’s administration. Their tweets have run the gamut, often touching on the salaries of faculty members at other HBCUs, highlighting major donations made to the university and making note of Frederick’s salary, which surpassed $1 million in 2018.

Earlier this month, 65 professors, including Dr. Greg Carr and Nikole Hannah-Jones, signed a letter imploring HU President Wayne A.I. Frederick and Provost Anthony K. Wutoh to draw up a contract that protects and fairly compensates unionized full-time nontenured and adjunct faculty members.

That letter preceded the March 16 protest in which faculty members, students and alumni converged on HU’s Administration Building to meet Frederick and Wutoh. Hours after campus officers blocked the building entrance, representatives of JacksonLewis P.C. later discouraged union members from speaking directly with Frederick, Wutoh and other administrators.

Marcus Alfred, a tenured faculty member and HU faculty senate chair who participated in the protest, expressed his support of the strike. He said the tenuous contract negotiations hint at larger problems about the university’s ability to create the ideal educational experience.

“The contingent faculty members aren’t asking for a whole lot. Howard loses some amazing people and amazing faculty members by not treating them well,” Alfred said.

“It seems like that will accelerate in the next few years. This is a symptom of a bigger problem. The faculty don’t really have the resources needed to do their jobs,” he said.

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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