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What Are Your Terms?

March 19, 2014

A successful job candidate’s worst nightmare just came true. If blog posts behind an understandable cloak of anonymity are to be trusted, a tenure-track assistant professorship in philosophy at Nazareth College awarded to “W” was withdrawn in response to the candidate’s attempts to negotiate with her would-be employer.

Her requests, according to her own account, were: a starting salary of $65,000, an “official semester of maternity leave,” a pre-tenure sabbatical, a limit of three new course preps for the first three years, and a year’s leave to complete a postdoc. She concluded her request by acknowledging that she did not expect to get all she sought: “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.” The response from Nazareth was devastatingly concise:

“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.”

Lean in, apparently, at your own peril.

The response to W’s requests and Nazareth’s summary dismissal has been voluminous: over 40,000 words of comments at Inside Higher Ed and the original blog by 11:30 the night the article was posted. While some sympathy for the job candidate is out there, the bulk of the comments I could bring myself to read blame the victim. They censure her, invoking a buyer’s-market logic that faults her for a modicum of self-advocacy in the ongoing horror show we know as the academic job market. They pick apart the mistakes W made in her perhaps imperceptive, but certainly not belligerent, message to her selection committee. (W has subsequently posted a largely unapologetic addendum that has received much the same response from IHE’s readers.)

The full context of this back-and-forth isn’t known — not that this has prevented commenters, myself included, from filling in the gaps with their own presumptions and moralisms — but Nazareth’s dismissal, as it has been presented to us, deserves our attention.

To say that Nazareth acted in bad faith is to understate the case. It is tone-deaf to the fundamentals of negotiation, where one’s opening bid overshoots the mark in order to reach a desired result. It ignores the peculiar place the applicant finds herself, often at the tail end of a long apprenticeship, yet with little professional experience. The young academic now with an offer in hand is in the position, as a mentor memorably described it to me, of “the dog that has finally caught the squirrel,” often unsure what to do next and susceptible to the at-times misjudged advice of others.

Nazareth’s response also anticipates her command of institutional norms before entering that very institution. The financial pressures on small liberal-arts colleges (SLACs) are pressing and very much real, and the demands of teaching expectations and salary thresholds (particularly relative to other professors at a similar rank) can make such requests as W’s nonstarters even at the wealthiest institutions. Questions of equity among colleagues in smaller departments can also be particularly acute.

But to assume that a job candidate has access to these high-level concerns at this stage in her career is obtuse; to refuse her the opportunity to have her requests denied, and to accept the job on the original terms offered her, is obscene. It belies an institution’s willingness to impart its goals and aspirations to its newest members.

Nazareth’s rashness also reveals a troubling disconnect between SLACs and R1 institutions around the hiring process. Job expectations and institutional cultures are oftentimes dramatically and necessarily different between the two. This communication problem can be exacerbated by the lack of liberal-arts exposure on the part of either the candidate or her advisers and the corroding belief many R1 faculty still propagate that SLACs can’t offer their candidates conditions in which they can flourish, even for those applicants most keen to teach in a liberal-arts setting.

Representatives from SLACs can be understandably fatigued when pushing back against these expectations and gun-shy when candidates demonstrate interests in a research agenda that appear to eclipse their investment as teachers. Graduate departments have an imperative to educate themselves about the expectations of liberal-arts colleges by listening to colleagues and recent Ph.D.s teaching in those settings. Likewise, SLAC hiring committees must proceed, particularly at the negotiation stage, with the knowledge that their hires may be getting advice that is oblivious to the realities of their institution.

Those realities, however, include the conditions in which to conduct research, as the opening lines of every tenured professor’s biography on the Nazareth College department of philosophy’s webpage attest. To presume that an expression of interest in conducting research speaks to the unfitness of a SLAC candidate or that R1 institutions are in no way student-centered is as counterproductive as the persistent stigma against SLACs amongst some graduate advisers. The ones who suffer amidst all of this misinformation are the candidates themselves.

Perhaps most troubling of all, even if merely as a result of the letter’s terseness, is the implication that a request for maternity leave is in some way anathema to the mission of an institution that regards itself as “being both teaching and student centered.” This in a context in which having children harms women but aids men on the tenure track. A context in which the conditions necessary for life-work balance, even those that merely approach the already appallingly low baseline protections afforded mothers under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the U.S. are particularly precarious for working women. A context in which gender disparities in pay amongst professors are glaringly high relative to other professions. And, as we have been reminded recently, philosophy has a gender problem.

To speculate on Nazareth’s complicity in these broader dynamics is just that: speculation (and kudos to them for achieving what must have been a hard-won gender parity amongst their tenured faculty in the department). But driving much of the animus against W’s actions in the comments is a sense that she has overstepped the bounds of propriety in a gendered power dynamic in which she is expected to be compliant and grateful for the terms presented her. The response she received to her attempts to negotiate, and the publicity they have already garnered, will no doubt have a chilling effect on future attempts by candidates, especially women candidates, to do the same.

As for the argument that the successful candidate in this economic climate, regardless of gender, should shut her mouth: at no other likely juncture will a junior professor have a better opportunity to negotiate the terms of her employment than at the moment of her hiring. The conditions under which she is employed will dramatically shape her chances for promotion and tenure. Negotiated terms matter to future success. Indeed, the tenure track itself doesn’t accede to the logic of the market.

By making all labor contingent — staffing courses with less-experienced workers at lower salaries who are least prone to produce health care costs, should they receive benefits at all — institutions can dramatically slash their single largest budget item (hardly a secret given the ongoing, devastatingly rapid adjunctification of the professoriate). Yet many professors rightly view tenure as the firmament that supports the true value of what we do and where we work. Those who say that W is replaceable by any number of good candidates are absolutely correct, so much so that their words apply equally to themselves.

That job-seekers can be treated in such a way is no argument that they ought to be. Collective action may well be the only systemic remedy for such widespread injustice.

At minimum, we would do well to remember that the conditions we create for our future colleagues constitute the very future of our profession.

Bio

David M. Ball is visiting associate professor of English at Princeton University and associate professor of English at Dickinson College. His Twitter handle is @english_nerd. His views are his alone and do not represent those of his employers.

 

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