Beef Between Howard and its Non-Tenure Faculty Shouldn't Be on Nikole Hannah-Jones' Plate

Howard University journalism professor Nikole Hannah-Jones has a new assignment waiting for her at the Mecca when she arrives this fall; advocate for the university non-tenure-track and adjunct professor ranks.

HU Professor Imani Light wrote about the challenges of collective bargaining between the institution and its non-tenured faculty members, using Jones’ recent appointment as a call for support and public attention to their appeals for more formal structure in contract creation, an end to non-tenured teaching term limits, higher salary and other issues.

Three years ago, the full-time faculty who work in positions not subject to tenure, organized and voted to create a Union that covers a membership roster of less than 150 professors. And in the three years since that ratifying vote passed, Howard University has rivaled the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart in their efforts to first block and then break the Union of non-tenure-track faculty. The Administration waged a propaganda campaign to undo organizing efforts. And after that failed to interrupt our creation, they side-stepped in-house attorneys to hire external legal counsel with experience thwarting Union organizing and collective bargaining. In three years, Howard has agreed to ZERO of the Union’s requests, offered a “best and final” offer that included ZERO of the Union’s requests, and completely left the bargaining table, leaving little options for the Faculty beyond labor actions the campus will likely see this Fall.

Multiple things are true within the ideas of this open letter. First, non-tenured faculty are simultaneously overjoyed and resentful of the university being cheered for attracting top-tier teaching talent while seemingly failing to retain lesser-known but equally effective professors and instructors.

It is also true that Howard faculty members share a struggle that burdens millions of faculty members at public, private, historically Black and predominantly white institutions nationwide — the question of how to better compensate and support the essential campus workforce responsible for a majority of an institution’s workload of producing capable, credentialed graduates.

A 2020 survey revealed that responding adjunct professors make less than $3,500 per course. Unionizing efforts among adjuncts can be legally mercurial and politically unstable, according to recent coverage in Inside Higher Ed.

These are not Howard’s problems, but the public discourse around these and other issues at Howard is always colored by the faulty narrative of “this should not be happening at Howard” because “this is Howard.” The idea of being the best of us doesn’t exempt an institution from struggling like the rest of us.

At the same time, is there a middle ground to be achieved between the university and its workforce? Certainly. Have both sides likely bargained in good faith? Probably not to the best of their ability in the forms of demands and concessions. Will there likely be a work stoppage this fall to cool off two straight red hot summers of cash windfall, talented students and faculty, and attention coming to Howard?

From the sounds of this letter, it is very likely.

That’s tough for Howard and any other HBCU going through similar growing pains because while it is inconvenient and possibly in poor taste for HU faculty to make Jones choose between supporting her new academic colleagues or siding with perceived executive imperialism, it is also a reasonable tool of underserved workers to wield in the effort to secure better labor conditions and pay.

Raising grievances in the public square is the same tool used by executives at Howard and other HBCUs to call for more support from federal and state governments, to hold industries to account for proper support of students and graduates, and to side with oppressed people in moments of injustice or civil imbalance. Institutions speak out when things are wrong in society, and constituents speak out when things are wrong in a community.

At the heart of this issue are some solid truths that both sides should bring to their next meeting at the negotiating table. First, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates have nothing to do with faculty collective bargaining, and shouldn’t be expected to talk about or leverage their brands to sway the discussions in one direction or the other.

Second, collective bargaining is a process where people agree, disagree, walk away, and come back. It doesn’t mean that either side is unrealistic, unyielding, or unchecked; it just means that there is serious work in heartfelt arbitration and that students and the community remain as the target for the ultimate resolution.

Finally, whatever solution is reached between both sides will probably be an unsatisfying treatise on labor laws, costs of living, academic affairs, industrial standards, and racialized expectations of the nation’s premier historically Black university. And whatever those things add up to will likely only have a shelf life of three to five years before a new agreement becomes necessary. Is labor brokering an ongoing journey with varying exits, or is it a series of destinations along a perceived path of economic and institutional utopia?

Hopefully, we’ll all find out soon and discover what it means for a tough topic and its impact on a sector in the midst of some long-awaited brighter days.