For years, faculty members at Harris-Stowe State University, a small HBCU in St. Louis, Mo., had complained about what they called a lack of shared governance; an iron-fisted, top-down management; low wages; limited resources for students; and a tenure and promotion system that they viewed as inconsistent.
They were angered three years ago when they say the university’s board effectively shut them out of the presidential selection process. After the new president abruptly resigned two years into the job, they were particularly outraged when the university’s acting president promoted four people to vice president, says Gregory Carr, a speech, English, philosophy and theater instructor at Harris-Stowe.
“They were giving them pay raises yet we were on a pay freeze,” says Carr, who has taught full time at the school of approximately 1,700 students since 2007.
So they decided to fight back. Last year, full-time faculty at Harris-Stowe became members of the first union at a public university in the Show Me State. About 80 percent of the faculty voted to join the Missouri National Education Association. A few months later, the new collective bargaining unit negotiated a new two-year contract that included a 3 percent raise for faculty members. It was their first raise in seven years, according to Carr, the union’s interim president.
Faculty unions are rare at HBCUs. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s 105 HBCUs have faculty unions. But that may be changing—due to increasing angst among faculty and greater demands for shared governance.
Howard University made history a few months ago when its adjunct faculty voted overwhelmingly to unionize, making them the first part-time faculty at a historically Black college to do so.
The approximately 170 adjuncts at Howard are affiliated with Service Employees International Union, which has been aggressively organizing adjunct faculty at colleges and universities in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Adjunct faculty at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) system are having talks with representatives from SEIU about unionizing. UDC’s full-time faculty members are represented by the NEA.
Most unionized faculty at HBCUs are in states like Ohio and Delaware. Experts say that may be in part because most HBCUs are located in the South, a region that has traditionally been hostile to unions. But even in some of these Southern states like Alabama, where state law prohibits collective bargaining among union employees, several colleges have faculty associations that are affiliated with large unions.
The current move toward unionization appears to be a trend, as more adjunct and non-tenured faculty demand higher wages, better working conditions, job security and a stronger voice.
“There’s been a movement among non-tenure-track faculty to unionize at universities across the country, including HBCUs,” says William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
“More generally, whenever faculty feel they do not have a voice and that working conditions are unsatisfactory, that is a recipe for faculty seeking to get together to unionize,” notes Herbert.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, says the challenges are even more daunting for adjunct faculty members.
“They have no job security, no input, no offices and no place to meet with students. It’s fairly similar across the board,” says Gasman.
Herbert says that, in addition to the NEA, SEIU and the Association of American University Professors, which has been organizing faculty for 100 years, other key players in faculty unionization include the American Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers. He says the UAW has been active in organizing graduate assistants.
Dr. Phadra Williams, an NEA official who specializes in higher education organizing and who was involved in organizing efforts at Harris-Stowe, describes higher education as an area of growth for the NEA. Although she says “on top of that, HBCUs have held our interest,” adding that faculty from several of these schools have approached them.
Williams, a graduate of Alabama State University, says there’s been a major interest in organizing at HBCUs in recent years for a variety of reasons that mirror the Harris-Stowe experience—shared governance, tenure and promotion, and wages.
“Faculty at HBCUs are among the lowest paid in the country. When you are at the bottom of the bag you want to do something about it,” notes Williams.
She adds that, when faculty win the right to collectively bargain, it sometimes has a ripple effect. Williams notes that, after Harris-Stowe professional staff became organized, other segments of the college’s workforce began exploring organizing efforts as well.
Christopher Honey is communications director for SEIU Local 500, which has been organizing adjunct faculty colleges in the Washington, D.C., area. He says Howard and UDC are part of a trend that’s sweeping through the area in recent years.
Honey says many of the adjunct faculty at Howard who voted for collective bargaining are not angry with the institution, which is currently battling its greatest financial crisis in decades, but many simply want to be part of the solution.
Jay Stewart, an adjunct faculty member who teaches communication law at Howard University, says he and his colleagues want to have a seat at the table during this crisis. He says they are also motivated by a need for better communication with the administration.
“Mostly we just want to have a voice,” says Stewart, a lawyer by training who has taught at Howard since 2002 and who makes a living by cobbling together classes at Howard, UDC and Trinity University. “We thought that, with the unsettled situation at the university, we needed to be represented in an organized way and we needed to have a seat at the table. There are 170 adjuncts at the university. Under ordinary circumstances we didn’t think their feelings would be conveyed. … Adjuncts have a perspective and they want to share it.”
He says Howard’s current financial crisis has created a sense of uncertainty among many faculty members, particularly those not on the tenure track.
“There are rumors and that level of uncertainty is unsettling, especially to an adjunct,” says Stewart. “When a full-time faculty (member) catches a cold, adjuncts catch pneumonia. I don’t think morale is bad. I just think people are nervous.”
As part of the collective bargaining agreement, Stewart says he would like to see an end to Howard’s seven-year teaching limit for non-tenured, full-time faculty members. For several years, he says, he was a full-time lecturer in the political science department but had to relinquish the position because he was not on the tenure track.
He says a similar sense of uncertainty is prevalent among adjunct faculty at the UDC system, which has had its share of financial challenges in recent years. Last year, the system laid off five faculty members and eliminated about 40 staff positions, says Myrtho Blanchard, UDC’s vice president of human resources.
Blanchard says she believes the worst of the financial crisis is behind the institution. She says UDC’s administration hasn’t taken a public stance against unionization but questions the need for collective bargaining.
“Our feeling is that people working at the university have the right to choose,” Blanchard says. “But we are saying that the benefits we offer are competitive. We believe we pay them competitively. We believe we treat them with respect and dignity.”