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Howard University faculty calls off strike after reaching tentative labor deal

The agreement paves the way to higher salaries and more opportunities for permanent employment, union leaders say.

Cyrus Hampton, a master instructor in the English department at Howard University, speaks in the Yard on March 23 about negotiations between a faculty union and the university. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Howard University faculty embraced and exchanged “congratulations” Wednesday, hours after their union reached an early-morning tentative labor deal with school officials and narrowly avoided a planned three-day strike.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Cyrus Hampton, a master instructor in the English department.

About two-dozen faculty, union leaders and students celebrated on Howard’s quad — about 200 feet from the Blackburn University Center, where students waged a month-long protest against the administration in the fall.

“The willingness of my colleagues and I to step forward and really push this from just a bargaining-room conversation to the real effort needed to push it through, that comes from watching students and watching students stand up for themselves,” Hampton said.

The labor group, which represents more than 300 Howard University part-time adjunct and full-time nontenure-track faculty members, said the deal it reached around 3:30 a.m. paves the way for higher salaries and more opportunities for permanent employment.

Nontenure-track faculty, such as lecturers, are typically hired by universities on a contractual basis and are not working toward tenure — an academic appointment that comes with job protection — while adjuncts often teach one-to-two courses per semester.

The deal is subject to ratification by the university’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, and union members who will vote in the coming weeks.

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In a statement, Howard officials confirmed that a tentative three-year agreement had been reached with faculty represented by the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

“Our contingent faculty are a respected part of our institution,” the statement says. “We share the collective goal of educating our students and today, because of this agreement and efforts to bargain in good faith on both sides, we will achieve that goal uninterrupted.”

The concerns of unionized faculty at Howard attracted widespread attention last year after an anonymous open letter, addressed to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Howard professor Nikole Hannah-Jones, was posted to Medium.com. Many of the issues outlined in the blog post — low pay, as well as policies that require certain nontenure-track faculty to reapply for their jobs at the end of each school year and leave their teaching position after seven years — were at the heart of talks between the union and the school.

The union said the tentative deal includes pay raises for its members — about 200 adjunct and 150 nontenure-track lecturers and instructors. Additional details will be made public after members have a chance to review the agreement, leaders said.

According to the union, nontenure-track faculty earn an average annual salary of $51,000, and leaders had hoped to raise their starting pay to $60,000 over the course of the three-year contract. The union said Wednesday it also pushed to bring adjunct pay on par with what full-time faculty are paid for each course they teach, arguing that students pay the same tuition regardless who is teaching their classes.

The union had also hoped to push the university to eliminate policies that require nontenure-track instructors and lecturers to reapply annually for their jobs and leave their teaching positions after seven years.

Anthony K. Wutoh, the school’s provost and chief academic officer, said in an interview that while Howard will keep the seven-year rule, officials did agree to introduce two-year contracts for faculty who are not on the tenure track.

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“We’re very pleased that there’s an agreement that compensates our faculty in a way that indicates the support that the university has for them,” Wutoh said. “We certainly wanted to avert any disruption in the academic environment for our students.”

The university also agreed to introduce a pathway for nontenure-track faculty that will allow them to be appointed for renewable, multiyear terms, according to Wutoh.

“We saw some really good movement on the question of compensation, we saw some betterment of the situation of stability,” Hampton said. “But job stability is still certainly an issue that we’re going to have to keep working.”

Negotiations between the Howard Teaching Faculty union and the university have dragged on for years, according to union leaders, who accused Howard officials of “bad-faith bargaining.” University officials, however, have maintained that they have negotiated with the union in good faith.

Wutoh pointed to the coronavirus pandemic and said “a number of things interrupted the process.” But he said an announcement earlier this year to provide raises for nonunion faculty helped move things forward.

“That really spurred the process along,” Wutoh said. “The university wanted to continue to support faculty for the excellent job that they have been doing and needed to come to an agreement with the union to assure that that was able to happen.”

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But Kevin Modestino, a master instructor in the English department, said the union’s plans to strike is what made the university commit to an agreement. Faculty last week threatened a three-day work stoppage if they could not reach a deal with campus administrators.

“Without a doubt, the fact that the university saw that we were organized and had support, and had support from our community, from our students, from our tenure-track and tenured faculty, from Howard alumni … has been instrumental,” Modestino said.

Enoch Jones, a 23-year-old Howard junior who participated in the fall Blackburn protests, attended the small faculty rally Wednesday morning. During the 34-day demonstration, students slept in tents and in sleeping bags, and demanded that the university address issues surrounding housing conditions, representation and administration transparency. The protest ended in November after 20 days of negotiations.

“I was ready for another 34 days,” said Jones, whose mother is a New York public school teacher. “This is a university where, if we don’t like something, we’re going to do something about it.”

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Dozens of students rallied in front of an administration building last week and demanded that officials reach an agreement with their professors.

Union leaders said Tuesday that some students have been disciplined for their actions while demonstrating. Sean Pears, a lecturer in the English department, called the alleged action against students “huge distractions” and said that any “escalation in tone” during the peaceful protest could be attributed to the presence of campus police who stood at the entrance of the administration building.

Frank Tramble, a university spokesman, declined to confirm whether any students have been disciplined, but he pointed to a school policy that protects students’ right to freedom of expression “provided that such activity is conducted in a reasonable manner and does not disrupt university operations or endanger the safety of others.”

Still, the union called Wednesday’s development a “historic achievement.”

“This is an ongoing thing, but this is a really big day of victory and success. It shows what happens when workers get together and stand up for their rights,” Hampton said. “We’re going to celebrate today, but tomorrow we’re going to get back to work.”

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