An Open Letter to Nikole Hannah-Jones from a Howard Faculty Member

Imani Light
5 min readJul 12, 2021

July 11, 2021

Professor Hannah-Jones,

Welcome to The Mecca, Sister! You are now part of the greatest collection of black academic excellence the nation has ever known. Your membership here is fitting. In prior semesters, I have assigned excerpts from “The 1619 Project” and its corollary materials to my Howard students. This is transformative work, creating scholars and inciting scholarship in students for whom the unfiltered history of enslavement and near-enslavement is new. Students who were vaguely aware of the cowhide’s blunt accuracy discover for the first time that enslavement included constant hunger, a lack of adequate clothing or shelter, the ubiquitous threat of rape, and the routine exposure to illness. They learn about the lack of white courage that led to the failure of Reconstruction. And the depth of white fragility that created constant encumbrances which hobbled black progress for another century. Because of your excellence in the field of Journalism and Media, students met Jacobs and Douglass, Cooper and DuBois, Hurston and Wright, Baraka and Giovanni, Morrison and Coates. So, the truth is that the start of your tenure at Howard University is not the beginning of your footprint here.

Accordingly, I had been following the details of your pending appointment in Chapel Hill, I signed one of the digital petitions demanding that your tenure case be treated the same as the white candidates who preceded you, and I flashed to anger as the details emerged of those racist politicians and philanthropists who fought to block your appointment. When I read the Twitterverse and other social media spaces cheering your decision to “go where you are valued, not where you are tolerated,” my heart lurched in empathy and, sadly, in understanding. I am a member of a devalued and disrespected faculty at Howard. The Administration’s leadership practices have soiled the bright and beautiful experiences in teaching that push me into my classes daily but have dimmed my formerly boundless, excited joy.

Like all universities in this moment in time, Howard relies significantly upon a faculty of full-time, non-tenure-track professors. We hold the same terminal degrees our tenured and tenure-track colleagues hold. We are well-situated in the most recent research and methods of our disciplines. We publish and research (admittedly, at lower rates). We teach four or five courses per semester. We counsel and advise students. We participate in committee work and university service. We draft letters of recommendation and mentor students towards academic and professional opportunities. And our students love us — because, quite honestly, we are excellent.

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.

What are some of our issues?

· The end of yearly applications — Each year, Howard professors working as Lecturers must re-apply anew for our jobs. Complete the employment application again, submit the vitae, act like we’ve never met. Every single year, we get a letter during the Spring Semester reminding us that our jobs are over as of May 15th.

· The need for formal reappointments completed by the end of the prior semester — Each year, Howard professors working as Lecturers receive no written offer for employment until the Fall Semester has already begun. Having no proof that we actually have a job, many of us seek employment elsewhere during the Summer and leave. Others have come to rely upon the “security” of seeing our names attached to courses and listed in registration materials circulated to students as confirmation that we will not discover in mid-August that we are newly unemployed.

· The end of the 7-year limit — Each year, Howard professors working as Lecturers are reminded that one cannot maintain employment at Howard beyond 7 years in a non-tenure-track position. Regardless of the strength of your courses, the demonstration of your dedication to the University and your students, or even the strength of your student evaluations, at the end of Year 7, Howard waves goodbye. Department Administrative Assistants have become accustomed to fielding inquires from students seeking grad school recommendations who are looking for Faculty who have been unnecessarily displaced. Under this policy, Howard famously parted ways with former faculty members Toni Morrison and Roberta Flack.

· Substantial salary increases — Each year, Howard professors working as Lecturers earn salaries which are among the lowest among peer and aspirational peer institutions. Lecturers who hold doctorates from the most rigorous programs in the nation earn $48,000/yr at Howard, less than a first-year Kindergarten teacher in Washington DC Public Schools who holds on a bachelor’s degree and just graduated in May 2021. Read that again. Howard values those who usher students toward complicated understandings of theory and method less than the city in which it is located values those who teach children the difference between the colors orange and red. This fact, “hits different,” as our students say, in a city where an average rent near Georgia Avenue begins at $2,500/month and two marquee faculty members are recruited to the University under the largesse of over $20 million in donations.

I teach at Howard by choice. We teach at Howard by choice. But the Howard Administration’s awareness of our love for the University’s ethos and mission has resulted in abuse of the faculty. It doesn’t take 6 months to negotiate a contract with a faculty of this size asking for so little. It certainly doesn’t take 3 years of setting and canceling meetings to stall the work, threatening faculty who refuse to start teaching in a semester without a contract or reappointment agreement, or silencing Department Chairs and/or other faculty who support the collective bargaining efforts of their colleagues.

As you begin your work on The Hilltop, we hope you will stand with us in insisting our Administration reach a fair and equitable contract with our Union of Professors and that they do so quickly to end a three-year long embarrassment. And if it comes to it, as it appears that it will, we hope you will even join us in solidarity as it may be necessary to absent ourselves from the work until fairness and equity become part of the Administration’s agenda.

Quite clearly, we have been tolerated. It’s time that we now are ALL valued. We don’t want to go.

In Truth & Service,

Your Howard University Colleague