The Counteroffer Game
Having heard that I was leaving the University of Wisconsin at Madison for my current position at Fordham University, a colleague at Wisconsin declared, "I was really surprised. We all voted for a strong counteroffer, so of course I presumed you'd stay." Whereas the higher prestige UW-Madison enjoys in certain rankings might contribute to a response like this, my department had been informed about the many professional and personal attractions of the proposed move, including my longstanding hope of returning to my native city.
Surely that colleague’s surprise reflected his assumption that the position at Fordham was merely a bargaining chip in the counteroffer game, that is, the practice of raising one’s salary substantially through an outside offer one really never planned to take up. And he apparently assumed as well that, as fellow players of that game, we could unabashedly acknowledge its workings.
As hiring committees have often learned to their cost, many academics do pursue positions they have no intention of accepting under any circumstances. Discussions of that practice are sometimes even more open than my colleague's comment. Right after receiving an offer, one successful applicant unapologetically told the person extending it that he had never been interested in the appointment as anything other than a lever at his current institution. I was informed that a faculty member responded to his chair’s encouragement to seek an outside offer with, “I don’t play that game.” The chair’s reply: “You do play it, and you’re losing.”
Certain professional practices and problems, often intensified by the economic climate, encourage this way of pursuing counteroffers. Some institutions — a number that has grown in the last five years of economic downturn — will provide very limited raises, or none at all, except in response to an offer from elsewhere. A member of a two-career academic couple may encourage an institution to hire her or his partner by presenting a clear and present danger of leaving. Both scarred and scared by years in unstable temporary positions, when some junior academics finally land a tenure-track appointment, they may remain in the running for other positions they know they would never accept in order to strike a better bargain.
More endemic and unsavory motives lie in competitiveness, a drive long present in many realms of higher education but arguably heightened by its so-called corporatization. Not only salaries but also status at one’s current institution may be raised by an offer from another one. And institutions themselves can delight in winning a bidding war. Sometimes, too, gray areas shade the issue of whether or not one should investigate a potential move. How interested does one need to be in another institution to pursue an offer there for reasons beyond hoping for a counteroffer? Conflicting personal needs and professional goals may complicate assessing one’s attraction to a potential job. I am certainly not advocating that people look into such a move only if they are virtually certain they will accept.
But understanding the motives that can lead academics to pursue jobs in which they have no interest, as well as sympathetically acknowledging the grey areas, does not preclude a black-and-white judgment. That is, it is wrong for a faculty member to pretend interest in a new position he is sure or virtually sure he will not take. Do not pass Go. Do not collect an offer that you have no realistic expectations of accepting.
Why not? People playing that game inflict on the hiring institution not only the financial expense of a campus visit but also the expenditure of time and energy from all those who read the apparent candidate’s materials, listen to a job talk, attend social events. In the worse-case scenario, if a department brings out two candidates, one of whom does not interview well while the other is not genuinely interested, the search may fail and the position disappear. In any event, the person who pretends interest is stealing a campus-visit slot from someone else who might really want and need the job.
The costs for the home institution with which — and against which — the game is played are also considerable. Money spent on lavish counteroffers cannot be used, say, to decrease class size; I know of one dean who redirected toward retention offers funds originally targeted for hiring new faculty. As noted below, the differential treatment, financial and otherwise, that a counteroffer often entails can fuel resentments. Collegial relations further suffer when the person playing the game must lie to friends in the department about his interest in the new job — not to mention provoking anxiety among students unnecessarily fearing his departure.
Moreover, as both symptom of and support for the star system, the counteroffer game exacts a price throughout the academy. We could never agree on the criteria for a completely equitable salary scale, let alone establish it in a given institution. But vast inequities in salary, other perks, and teaching loads have clearly intensified within higher education in recent decades. While continuing to deplore the way adjuncts are exploited in many institutions, we should also observe that we in effect have not a two- but a three-tier faculty structure -- star professor, rank-and-file tenure-track teacher and adjunct. The unabashed bestowal of munificent counteroffers on the stars widens these gaps. Star professors themselves sport expensive price tags. And the concept of the professor as individual entrepreneur rather than member of a community has many costly consequences.
But are my arguments naive? Despite all the toxic fallout described above, some will object that our academic market mandates generous counteroffers. In fact, however, not only faculty members but also departmental and university administrators could work to change the counteroffer culture, in so doing improving the academic workplace in many respects while also alleviating, though not completely avoiding, problems of retention.
To begin with, increasing salaries mainly or entirely when people play the counteroffer game is penny-wise and pound-foolish, not least because a system of regular and fairly determined raises significantly lowers the pressure to seek a counteroffer. (And occasionally people who cynically do so actually become interested in the new position, another price that must be paid for confining raises to counteroffers.) Moreover, faculty members and administrators need collaboratively to reconsider how their department, or the institution as a whole, responds to outside offers. There is at least a case to be made for an across-the-board policy that no counteroffers will occur.
One wise dean announced that people could go to the counteroffer well only once, and he further determined that counteroffers would not necessarily match an outside offer inasmuch as he would not significantly raise the salary of someone with such a bargaining chip above that of faculty members with comparable records. Or retention packages could focus on changes that would not build permanent and major disparities into the salary structure, such as a reduction in teaching for a few semesters or a bonus rather than a permanent hike in pay. Such procedures would of course need to be transparent and equitable to prevent resentment. Finally, I’ll half-seriously introduce a utopian solution: establishing an understanding that if someone is in line for a counteroffer, her salary can be raised only by a pre-established amount, say $3,500 or $5,000, over that of people determined to have roughly similar records, with the rest of the funds that would have been devoted to the counteroffer spent instead on raising the salaries of others to fairer levels. Thus practices that serve the individual player would be inverted to serve the team as well, in so doing also discouraging the entrepreneurial model of the profession.
Policies like these would lessen the number of people playing the game. Their potential price, of course, is occasional departures, including those stemming from raids initiated by another institution rather than from the machinations of an individual faculty member who initially pretended interest in an outside offer. But professors do not necessarily leave if the terms of such offers are not fully matched — other considerations, such as the quality of life in a given locale, the availability of internal research grants, and the needs of a family may determine a decision -- and in any event, few people are really irreplaceable.
If a newly hired colleague lacks some positive attributes of her predecessor, she may in turn offer types of expertise that predecessor lacked. Many faculty members will be somewhat less concerned about the possibility of a departure if administrations regularly agree to replace, and when feasible agree to replace at a roughly comparable level of distinction, faculty members who leave. Admittedly, hiring freezes and the start up costs in scientific though not most other fields may complicate such practices. In general, however, reconceiving counteroffers in these or other as yet unexplored ways would be less costly, financially and collegially, than acceding to expectations of lavish retention packages.
In particular, we need to remember that although the departure of a given colleague can be a real loss, people who remain on the faculty permanently embittered by the many personal and systemic consequences of practices like those prodigal counteroffers are in some important respects lost to the school and the scholarly community as well.
In short, changing the attitudes and practices that encourage the counteroffer game could also be a game-changer for our professional values — discouraging and disdaining the model of the winner-take-all entrepreneur and encouraging principled collegiality and fair play.
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.