After more than three years of negotiating their first contract since they unionized, 150 full-time lecturers are expected to strike at Howard University beginning this Wednesday. Unless an agreement is reached in the coming days, they will strike alongside almost two hundred adjunct professors hoping to secure their second contract.
Established not long after the end of the Civil War, Howard University is widely regarded as the nation’s top historically black college or university (HBCU). Its rich intellectual history attracts accomplished academics from around the world. Unfortunately, according to strike-ready faculty, Howard also has a history of underpaying and arbitrarily terminating nontenured professors.
In speaking with several faculty represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500, it’s clear they cherish the institution and enjoy their work, which they say makes this labor conflict particularly excruciating — and necessary. The roughly 350 strike-ready Howard professors are asking for higher compensation and better job security, with opportunities to remain at Howard long-term.
The strike has been a long time coming, as negotiations for the full-time lecturers began in early 2018. Sean Pears, who teaches in the English Department at Howard, says professors have drawn inspiration from student activists at the university who have been protesting campus living conditions for two years. “The students showed us the way,” Pears told Jacobin. “We’ve been stalled in negotiations for three years trying to get a first contract. The [student] protests showed us how you do it: you have to articulate solidarity in a public way. If need be, you’ve got to shut [the campus] down, or at least threaten to shut it down. That’s power.”
The student protests continue a long tradition at the university — which is why it was no surprise to learn that many of the faculty gearing up for a strike are Howard alumnae themselves.
English professor Cyrus Hampton is one of them. Hampton graduated from Howard in 2006 and returned to teach in 2017 when he “immediately recognized the tough situation contingent faculty were in.” Howard told Jacobin that he didn’t receive a paycheck during his first two months of work, or even a letter confirming his employment, which he says is a relatively common experience for the lecturers and adjuncts at Howard. These difficulties brought Hampton into rank-and-file union organizing.
Delaying his students’ instruction and potentially shutting down the university that he has invested so much in is a decision Hampton does not take lightly. “Howard is strange because the campus is run-down. There is frustration and hopelessness felt throughout the school, bolstered by bad blood between the leadership and the [rest of the] university,” says Hampton. “But I love it here. We all do, and we want to stay in spite of the decisions being made at the top. That’s why we protest.”
Howard president Dr Wayne A. I. Frederick sent an email to faculty at the beginning of the year announcing a pay raise for tenured and tenure-track faculty. The raise will bring their pay to 90 percent of the median pay calculated from a list of nine peer universities in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia area.
But according to SEIU, the university used a separate list to calculate proposed pay raises for the 350 non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty who are currently preparing to strike. The list they used consisted of 558 schools from the Southeast region of the country, mostly community and Bible colleges.
Anika Prather, another Howard alumna, has taught in the Classics Department for two years. As the founder and head of a K–12 school and the mother of young children, Prather says she has no plans to seek a tenure position, or even a title change, at the university. “I have a deep desire to pour back into Howard what I received from it, but on certain terms,” she told Jacobin. “And so I desire to fight for this union, for myself, and for my colleagues.
The irony is also not lost on Prather that an HBCU is pushing her, a black woman teaching majority-black students, to strike for dignified work. “It feels strange that a university which hired the authors of the 1619 Project and Between the World and Me treats its faculty this way,” she says.
But Prather adds that the solidarity between her union siblings and other workers on campus has been encouraging. School nurses at Howard represented by SEIU Local 500, who are also in the middle of contract negotiations, attended a rally in support of the non-tenure-track workers last Wednesday.
With two days of bargaining left on the calendar before the strike is scheduled to commence, it’s not clear whether a deal will be reached. Howard University has employed the services of anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made for strenuous negotiations and led to multiple unfair labor practice charges. It’s not uncommon for union members to struggle to get their first contract, but this particular fight at one of the elite American institutions could be emblematic of a broader trend in academia.
One of the full-time professors’ main demands is to increase the percentage of faculty that are eligible for longer appointments. The university has set an arbitrary seven-year cap for nontenured professors, after which they are no longer asked to reapply, no matter their record. Whether a career-track teaching position is available is at the whim of the administration, but the workers are demanding the right to apply based on the quality of their work, not just a vacancy.
“The labor crisis in academia is, in part, manufactured by administrations’ willingness to pay as little as they possibly can,” says Pears. The Howard administration “actually said as much to us at the table when justifying their position. They understand they can pay $3,000 a course for adjuncts, and that’s true. But . . . that’s what we’re trying to change.”
Academia’s two-tier system, which separates out tenured from nontenured workers, poses problems throughout higher education. Still, some other universities do have better policies than Howard. So why not go teach somewhere else? Pears told Jacobin that another university “might not be as fulfilling a space in which they could be their whole self. It’s made organizing challenging at times, but here we are preparing to go on strike.”