Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do


This post is about a revoked job offer at a teaching institution that was in the news, and is also about how to negotiate for a job. I’ve written about negotiation priorities before, but this missive is about how to discuss those priorities with your negotiating partner.

Part A: That rescinded offer in the news

Last week, a story of outrage made the rounds. The capsule version is this: A philosopher is offered a job at a small teaching school. She tries to negotiate for the job. She then gets immediately punished for negotiating, by having the offer rescinded.

This story first broke on a philosophy blog, then into Inside Higher Ed, and some more mainstream media, if that’s what Jezebel is. There are a variety of other posts on the topic including this, and another by Cedar Reiner.

Some have expressed massive shock and appall. However, after reading the correspondence that caused the Dean to rescind the job offer, I’m not surprised at all. After initial conversations, the candidate wrote to the Dean:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Here is what the Dean thought, in her words:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

There has been a suggestion of a gendered aspect. That viewpoint is expressed well here, among other places. (There doesn’t seem to be a pay equity problem on this campus, by the way.) I wholly get the fact that aggressive negotiation has been seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. I think it is possible that gender played a role, but in my view, the explanation offered by the Dean is the most parsimonious one. (Now, my opinion will be dismissed by some because of my privilege as a tenured white dude. Oh well.) Given the information that we’ve been provided, and interpreted in light of my experiences at a variety of teaching campuses, I find the “fit” explanation credible, even if it’s not what I would have done.

A job offer is a job offer, and once an offer is made the employer should stand behind the offer. Then again, if some highly extraordinary events unfold before an agreement is reached, the institution can rescind the job offer. In this circumstance, is the candidate’s email highly extraordinary?

Did this start at “negotiation” communicate so many horrible things about the candidate that the institution should have pulled its offer? The Dean’s answer to that question was, obviously, “Yes.”

I would have answered “no.” Many others have done the yeoman’s blog work of explaining exactly how and and why that was the wrong answer to the question. I’m more interested in attempting to crawl inside the minds of the Dean and the Department that withdrew the offer. What were they thinking?

The blog that first broke this story called these items “fairly standard ‘deal-sweeteners.’” I disagree. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Dean and the Department, then this is how I think I might have read that request:

I am not sure if I really want this position. If you are willing to stretch your budget more than you have for any other job candidate in the history of the college, then I might decide to take the job, because accepting it is not an easy decision.

1) I realize that your initial salary offer was about what Assistant Professors make at your institution, but I want to earn 20% more, as much as your Associate Professors, because that’s what new faculty starting at research universities get.

2) I’d know that 6 months of parental leave is unofficial policy and standard practice, but I want it in writing.

3) I’d like you to hire adjuncts for an extra sabbatical before I come up for tenure. By then I’m sure I’ll need a break from teaching, even though everybody else waits until after tenure to take a sabbatical.

4) Before I take this special extra sabbatical, I want an easier teaching schedule than everybody else in my department.

5) I want to stay in my postdoc for an extra year, because I’d rather do more research somewhere else than teach for you. I realize that you advertised the position to fill teaching needs, but you can hire an adjunct.

While some of these requests are the kind that I’d expect to be fulfilled by a research institution, I’m hoping that you are able to treat me like a professor from a research institution. Now that you’ve offered me this teaching job, I want my teaching obligations to be as minimal as possible. Let me know what you think.

And the Dean did exactly that: she let her know what she thought. I’m not really joking: that’s really how I think it could be seen, inside the context of a teaching- and student-centered institution.

Here is a more unvarnished version of what I imagine the Dean was thinking:

Holy moly! Who do you think we are? Don’t you realize that we want to hire you to teach? I didn’t pull the salary out of thin air, and it was aligned with what other new Assistant Professors earn here. And if you want to teach here, why the heck do you want to stay in your postdoc which presumably pays less money? If you wanted to stay in your for 18 months earning a postdoc salary, instead of coming to teach for us at a faculty-level salary, then why would you even want this job at all? Also, didn’t you realize that we advertised for the position to start this year because we need someone to teach classes in September? If you have such crazy expectations now, then I can only imagine what a pain in the butt you might be for us after you get tenure. I think it’s best if we dodge this bullet and you can try to not teach at a different university. We’re looking for someone who’s excited about teaching our students, and not as excited about finding ways to avoid interacting with them.

The fact remains that the candidate is actually seeking a teaching-centered position. However, she definitely was requesting things that an informed candidate would only ask from a research institution. I don’t think that she necessarily erred in making oversized requests, but her oversized requests were for the wrong things. They are focused on research, and not on teaching. While it might be possible that all of those requests were designed to improve the quality of instruction and the opportunities to mentor students, it clearly didn’t read that way to the Dean. We know it didn’t read that way, because the Dean clearly wrote that she thought the candidate was focused too heavily away from teaching and students. I’m not sure if that’s true, but based on the email, that perspective makes a heckvualotta sense to me.

I’d would be more inclined to chalk the unwise requests to some very poor advice about how to negotiate. I’d would have given the candidate a call and try to figure out her reasons, and if the answers were student-centered, then I’d continue the negotiation. But I can see how a reasonable Dean, Department, and Vice President of Academic Affairs could read that email and decide that the candidate was just too risky.

New tenure-track faculty hires often evolve into permanent commitments. You need to make the most of your pick. Hiring a dud is a huge loss, and it pays to be risk averse. If someone reveals that they might be a dud during the hiring process, the wise course of action is to pick someone who shows a lower probability of being a dud. However, once an offer is made, the interview is over.

But according to Nazareth College, this candidate showed her hand as a total dud, and a massive misfit for institutional priorities. Though I wouldn’t have done it, I have a hard time faulting them for pulling the offer. If they proceeded any further, they would have taken the chance that they’d wind up with an enthusiastic researcher who would have been avoiding students at every opportunity. Someone who might want to bail as soon as starting. Or maybe someone who got a better job while on the postdoc and not show up the next year. The department only has four tenure-track faculty, and would probably like to see as many courses taught by tenure-line faculty as possible.

Having worked in a few small ponds like Nazareth, I don’t see the outrageousness of these events. We really have no idea, though, because there is a lot of missing context. But we know that the Dean ran this set of pie-in-the-sky requests by the Department and her boss. They talked about it and made sure that they weren’t going to get into (legal) hot water and also made sure that they actually wanted to dump this candidate. It’s a good bet that the Department got this email and said, “Pull up, pull up! Abort!” They may have thought, “If we actually are lucky enough to fill another tenure-track line, we don’t want to waste it on someone who only wants to teach three preps before taking a pre-tenure sabbatical while we cover their courses.” I don’t know what they were thinking, of course, but this seems possible.

Karen Kelsky pointed out that offers are rescinded more often at “less prestigious institutions.” She’s definitely on to something. Less prestigious institutions have more weighty teaching loads and fewer resources for research (regardless of the cost of tuition). These are the kinds of institutions that are most likely to find faculty job candidates who are wholly unprepared for the realities of life on the job.

When an offer gets pulled, I imagine it’s because the institution sees that they’ve got a pezzonovante on their hands and they get out while they still can.

At teaching institutions, nobody wants a faculty member who shies away from the primary job responsibility: teaching.

In a research institution, how would the Dean and the Department feel if a job candidate asked the Dean for reduced research productivity expectations and a higher teaching load for the first few years? Wouldn’t that freak the Department out and show that they didn’t get a person passionate for research? Wouldn’t the Dean rethink that job offer? Why should it be any different for someone wanting to duck teaching at a teaching institution?

I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: “I don’t want to teach” and “I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.” Of course everybody benefits when new faculty members get reassigned time to stabilize. But these requests were not just over the top, they were in orbit.

If I were the Dean at a teaching campus, what kinds of things would I want to see from my humanities job candidates? How about a guarantee for the chance to teach a specialty course? Funds to attend special conferences and funds to hire students as research assistants. Someone wanting to start early so that they could start curriculum development. Someone wanting a summer stipend to do research outside the academic year?

Here’s the other big problem I have with the narrative that has dogpaddled around this story. It’s claimed that the job offer was rescinded because she wanted to negotiate. But that’s not the case. The job candidate was not even negotiating.

Part B: What exactly is negotiation and how do you do it with a teaching institution?

A negotiation is a discussion of give and take. You do this for me, I do this for you. You give me the whip, and I’ll throw you the idol.

In the pulled offer at Nazareth College, the job candidate was attempting to “negotiate” like Satipo (the dude with the whip), but from other side of the gap.

What the Dean received from the candidate wasn’t even a start to a negotiation. It was, “Here is everything I want from you, how much can you give to me?” That is not a negotiation. A negotiation says, “Here are some things I’m interested in from you. If you give me these things, this is what I have to offer.”

How should this candidate have started the negotiation? Well, actually, the email should have been a request to schedule a phone conversation. What should the content of that conversation have been? How could the candidate have broached the huge requests (pre-tenure sabbatical, starting in 18 months, very few preps, huge salary)? By acknowledging that by providing these huge requests, huge output would come back.

“Once I get a contract for my second book, could you give me a pre-tenure sabbatical to write this book?”

“I’m concerned I won’t be able balance my schedule if I have too many preps early on. If you can keep my preps down to three per year, I’ll be more confident in my teaching quality and I should be able to continue writing manuscripts at the same time.”

“Right now, I am working on this exciting project during my postdoc, which is funded for another year. If it’s possible for me to arrive on campus after I finish my postdoc, this work will really help me create an innovative curriculum for [a course I will be teaching]. During this postdoc, I’d be glad to host some students from the college for internships and help them build career connections.” Of course, it’s very rare a teaching institution wants to wait a whole extra year. They want someone to teach, after all! It couldn’t hurt much to ask, if you phrase it like this, verbally.

“After running the numbers, I see that a salary of $65,000 is standard on the market for new faculty at sister institutions. But from what I’ve seen from the salary survey, this is well above the median salary for incoming faculty. If you can find the funds to bring me in at this salary, I’m okay if you trim back moving expenses. Being paid at current market rate in my field is important to me, and if you let me know what level of performance is tied to that level of compensation, I’ll deliver.”

By no means am I a negotiation pro. What I do know comes mostly from the classic book, “Getting to Yes.” The main point of this book is that “positional negotiation” is less likely to be successful. This approach involves opposite sides taking extreme positions and then finding a middle ground. Just like asking for a huge salary, and lots of reassigned time and easy teaching.

Getting to Yes explains how to do “principled negotiation.” In this case, you have a true negotiating partner in which you understand and respect one another’s interests. So, instead of haggling over salary like buying a used piece of furniture at a swap meet, you discuss the basis for the salary and what each of you will get out of it.

If you are asking for a reduced teaching load, then you explain what you will deliver with this reduced teaching load (higher quality teaching and more scholarship), and what the consequences will be if you don’t get it (potential struggle while teaching and fear that you won’t have time to do scholarship). And so on. The quotes I suggested above are what you’d expect to see in a principled negotiation. The book is a bit long but there are some critical ideas in there, and I’m really glad I read it before I negotiated my current position. When it was done, both I and the Dean thought we won, and we reached a fair agreement.

If you are in the position of receiving an academic job offer, negotiating for the best starting position is critical. You don’t have to be afraid of having the offer withdrawn as long as you’re negotiating in good faith. That mean you communicate an understanding the constraints and interests of your negotiating partner. And being sure that when you are ask for something, your reason is designed to fulfill the interests of your partner as much as yourself. So, asking for a bunch of different ways to get out of teaching responsibilities is a non-starter when your main job responsibility is teaching.

It’s not only acceptable to negotiate when you are starting an academic job, it’s expected. The worst lesson to take from this incident is Nazareth is that there is peril in negotiation. I suggest that the lesson is that you must negotiate. And, keep in mind that negotiation is a conversation and a partnership towards a common goal. Even when it comes to money, there is a common goal: You want to be paid enough that you’ll be happy and stay, and they want you to be paid enough that you’ll stay.

You won’t have anybody pull a job offer from you if you’re genuinely negotiating. It’s okay to ask for things that your negotiating partner can’t, or may not want to, deliver. However, what you ask for should reflect what you really truly want, and at the moment you’re asking, provide a clear rationale, so that you appear reasonable. If you’re interviewing for jobs, then I recommend picking up a copy of Getting to Yes.

15 thoughts on “Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do

  1. Interesting story, though tough to interpret without context that no outsider has. FWIW, your speculations as to what the Dean was thinking sound plausible to me.

    One other bit of context we don’t have is any information on the strength of the other candidates. If the department felt like there were other candidates who were almost as good, that may well have played into the decision to withdraw the offer, in order to hire someone else instead. Pure speculation on my part, of course.

    A few thoughts on negotiation advice:

    In my admittedly-limited experience your advice is very good. Just asking for “sweeteners” isn’t negotiating–that’s just making demands. The only context in which it might work is if you have the leverage that comes from multiple job offers. As you say, you have to explain why you want what you want, and what the institution hiring you will get in return. For instance, when I was hired at Calgary, my startup request wasn’t just for a certain amount of money. I gave the university an itemized, fully-priced list of the equipment, supplies, etc. I needed. I explained briefly why I needed each of the big-ticket items to start up my research program and so become the success Calgary wanted me to be. I also indicated which items of equipment I’d be willing to share (having done my homework and found out that there was a fair bit of equipment sharing at Calgary), and which I’d be using so heavily as to make sharing infeasible. The costs of the items I asked for did add up to the maximum amount I knew I could expect from Calgary–and I got that amount. I suspect that my approach to my startup request was effective, because I know of someone who was hired at a very similar place around the same time who just asked for a number for startup (the same number I asked for) and got less. And I made no attempt to negotiate on salary. I verified that the salary I was offered was in line with the scale at Calgary, but that was it. I had no other offers and my postdoc was over, so I had no leverage. The only other thing I think I asked for was that my teaching load be kept light early on to allow me to start up my research program. And that was standard practice in the dept. that hired me, so I wasn’t even asking for anything there that they weren’t already planning to give me. Oh, and I think I asked them to pay my moving expenses, and pay for me to come out for a visit over the summer so my wife and I could find a place to live. Neither of those was a big ask-they were small, one-time expenses for the university, plus I’m sure they did the same for most other hires.

    Your post also highlights that you need to know what recent hires typically get *at the institution that’s hiring you*. Knowing what’s typical at other places isn’t very helpful for negotiating purposes, I don’t think, not even if the other places seem comparable to the place that’s hiring you. For instance, at many institutions (including Calgary) the salary scale is set by a collective agreement with the faculty union, leaving the institution little wiggle room to negotiate on salary. And even if the institution isn’t constrained by legal agreements, they’re going to be most concerned with ensuring fairness and equitability among their own faculty. Why should they care if their starting salaries or whatever are comparable to those at other institutions?

    Lest any of the above sounds cocky, let me emphasize that I was fortunate to get very good advice from those from whom I sought advice (and in my case, the advice included “don’t bother trying to negotiate much; you have no leverage”). Pure speculation here, but I do wonder if the philosopher whose story you relate in the post was in part the victim of bad advice from advisers who perhaps should’ve known better.

  2. I followed this story last week, and this is a very well-written response, and I heartily agree with everything. I’ve served on search committees, and I would have read that response in the exact way in which you described it. I may not have immediately rescinded the offer either, but I would have had strong hesitations that would have probably been reflected in my counter offer.

    The one thing that I keep waiting for is a response from the candidate herself. A big part of me wonders if she was using this interview as “practice” from the seemingly cold tone of the email. Or maybe she just got another, better, offer elsewhere, so why not make large demands. (Because, you are right, she wasn’t negotiating.)

    As for the negotiating aspect – I was the worst. I had very little guidance, was completely green, and my research and teaching suffered a lot because of that. Three years into my job, I’m just hitting my teaching stride and I’m only starting the research that I would have begun years ago, with the proper start up funds. Lesson learned.

  3. Your advice on how negotiation should work is helpful. But unfortunately, most basic advice that I’ve ever been giving on job offer negotiation is much more like what W originally wrote than your proposed alternative.

    When I worked in industry, I was always afraid to negotiate because I was afraid they’d get upset and rescind the offer, even though various slightly older friends assured me this was something that never ever happens and that any company that would ever rescind an offer over a negotiation isn’t one you should work for anyway and by the way it never happens and is an unreasonable thing to fear. I don’t know if my fear in that regard is gendered or not. But honestly this story makes me a little more nervous about the idea of negotiating in the future, simply because it involves a rescinded offer. I would think the time to assess fit is during the selection process.

    I really don’t like that they rescinded the offer, even if her negotiating skills were not good. If they thought her demands were unreasonable, they could have just said that they couldn’t grant them, and then see if she still felt like she was a good fit for the job.

  4. Thanks for this post and the comments above – lots to think about for those inexperienced and looking to negotiate their first academic offer.

  5. I think that you give some good advice for negotiating an offer. I also agree that W could have used a better negotiating strategy. But I find the rescinded offer such a huge shocking.

    From W’s email, it seemed pretty clear that she was listing 5 different things the college could do to make a more appealing offer. It seemed pretty clear she did not expect all of these suggestions to be met “some of these might be easier to grant than others” and was obviously open to negotiating ” Let me know what you think.”

    W in not really in a good position to how hard it would be for the college to meet any one of her negotiating points. Perhaps they have little wiggle room on one, but more on another point. By listing several and acknowledging that they some may be easier than others, she gives them options to figure out a way to make everyone happy. I would think.

    I also think there is a gender issues at play here. It is widely know that there is a gender gap in pay in academia. It is also known that part of this is due to gender differences in the negotation process (Babcock + Laschever 2009). Anecdotally, several female peers in the negotiating stage that I have talked to, have expressed concern about not getting what they deserve because they don’t negotiate hard enough. So maybe here, W negotiates a little harder than she would if these gender differences didn’t exist in the first place, and wham! offer rescinded.
    Given how many studies have found gender influences the perception and outcome of the negotiation process (e.g. Stuhlmacher et al. 1999), wouldn’t gender discrimination be a more parsimonious explanation for the outcome than the one you proposed?

    Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2009). Women don’t ask: Negotiation and the gender divide. Princeton University Press.

    Stuhlmacher, A. F., & Walters, A. E. (1999). Gender differences in negotiation outcome: A meta‐analysis. Personnel Psychology, 52(3), 653-677.

  6. I’m not even sure she was negotiating, at least, the mail wasn’t framed as negotiation, but rather a set of requests. That’s partially semantics, though.

    I’d be more inclined to think that the ‘not interested in teaching’ is less parsimonious than your hypothesis if there was a pay inequity, but it’s roughly the same among genders at Nazareth; actually junior female faculty earn slightly more than men. That doesn’t suggest this problem a this institution.

    Her email didn’t express an interest in negotiating, though I think that was the intention. A real interest in negotiation would communicate what she would have it give, other than signing the contract and showing up. Asking what they think is just waiting for a reply. And by saying that they’d ”make the decision easier” implies that the initial offer was a bad deal. Maybe it was, but it wasn’t earnest communication. She said that she thought that she wasn’t going to get what she requested. She realized that the asks were too much. Regardless, it’s not how much she was requesting, but the kinds of things she requested that we’re concerning. Based on my work in a very similar school, I do t find this response surprising at all. For those who are surprised, they would gain some context by working in a SLAC for a while.

    With thus peer reviewed research on women and negotiation, is there an indication that women experience higher rates if offer withdrawals?

  7. I guess I, like W, have misinterpreted what “negotiating” is. I know that for some things like a piece of equipment or startup package you should outline why the particular thing you asked for will be good for both you and the department. But I also thought, maybe wrongly in today’s market, is that part of the negotiation process is negotiating what the university needs to do to get you, their preferred job applicant to work there. I think that this is the conventional meaning of “negotiation” in a job context.

    I also was under the impression that rescinding an official offer to an applicant would not allow them to make an offer to their next choice, but rather it would mean a failed search, and a whole new search process would have to start, if there was a new one at all. Maybe this varies from place to place, or is flat out wrong. I will certainly be sure to research this if/when the time comes.

    Regardless of the true reason for the rescinded offer, it seems to suggest that the negotiation process is just another part of interview process.

    RE: evidence for higher offer withdrawals for women vs men. I am not sure if this has been looked at before (I didn’t think they were commonplace), but I think it follows naturally that if women are more likely to be perceived as being demanding when asking for the same things, that they would also be more likely to have their offers rescinded.

  8. Right, the way it has always been presented to me (outside of academia – I worked industry jobs before going back for a PhD) is that in a job context, negotiation is asking for what you want, within reason, and preferably providing a basis (like the average pay for similar jobs in your geographic area) for your requests. Her actual requests may have been all wrong – it sounds like they were – but the tone and format is similar to how I’ve been told you negotiate job offers.

    This may be an academia vs non-academia one (or perhaps field-specific – my industry jobs were in computer science and software, where the job market is better for applicants than in many other fields). And certainly, I think Terry’s advice is more polite, and something I’d be more willing to actually do than what I had thought of as job offer negotiation, and extremely useful (and thus I am grateful for it, and for this post). But I suspect that W was given some bad advice somewhere down the line, both about tone (maybe from non-academics) and what the right things are to ask for, rather than having made her approach up out of whole cloth.

  9. Actually, when an offer gets pulled, the whole point of pulling it is not to fail to search, but to promptly land the next candidate in line. I was once highly involved (on the sidelines though) in a nearly-withdrawn offer and the whole point of the withdrawal would have been to get a candidate that had a clear idea of what the position entailed with a realistic set of expectations involving the position. Very similar to this case at Nazareth, actually.

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