Her Side of the Story

'W.' attracted sympathy and ire last week when the story of her failed attempt at negotiating a tenure-track position went viral. Now she's addressing her critics.

March 17, 2014

For those fortunate enough to receive tenure-track job offers, negotiating a better deal can be as stressful as earlier stages in the job hunt. Many candidates fear that asking for too much, or asking in the wrong way, could make an offer disappear – especially when available positions are so few. So it was perhaps unsurprising that the story of ‘W,’ the Nazareth College philosophy faculty candidate whose attempt at negotiating ended in her losing the offer entirely, recently went viral, appearing on sites from Forbes to Jezebel. While many commenters have criticized the college for backing out on its offer, others still have flung unflattering labels at W, such as “entitled” and “naïve.”

Now, W is talking back to her critics.

“Up front: I agree with those arguing that I made a mistake in negotiating,” W wrote in a new post on Philosophy Smoker, the popular blog for graduate students and junior faculty on which her story first appeared. “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them.”

That said, W wrote in response to widespread criticism, “I am flabbergasted by all the moralizing in the comments on this thread.”

Last week, Philosophy Smoker and then Inside Higher Ed detailed an email exchange W had with Nazareth about deal sweeteners, including upping her salary to $65,000; delaying her start date by one year so she could finish a postdoctoral appointment; and a pre-tenure sabbatical. Nazareth -- followed by experts in academic job negotiations and many readers -- said that her requests were not appropriate for a small, private liberal arts college with limited resources. Instead of countering, the college rescinded the offer altogether.

W’s requests indicated her “interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered,” the search committee said in its response. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.”

In her new post, W calls the episode “a clear case of a miscommunication between the institution and myself.” She says she didn’t expect for all, or even most, of her requests to be granted. Rather, “I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

Responding to those who have said her tone missed the mark, W notes that there was “plenty of much warmer emailing going on” prior to her negotiation. W adds: “Earlier in the day before I sent the email posted, I sent another email that was meant as a warning that I was now switching to what one might call a ‘negotiating tone.’ I obviously didn’t do a good enough job communicating that, though.”

W also challenges Nazareth’s assertion that her requests indicated a desire to teach a more research-focused institution.

“I was very excited about the job and in general about the prospect of teaching at a small college with a high teaching load,” she says. “If the offer had been upheld, and I would have chosen to not accept the offer, it would certainly not have been because I want a more research intensive job — I don’t.”

Requests for limited preps, or individual courses to prepare for, would simply have allowed her to do a better job and have more time for research – mainly to improve her chances of getting tenure, W says.

W also points out that her request for a starting salary of $65,000 equaled a less than 20 percent increase in proposed pay -- a request she says another college offering her a job had met. And asking for guaranteed maternity leave was at attempt to put in writing what she already understood to be “unofficial policy” at Nazareth.

If unapologetic over all, W says she hopes “a few philosophers on the market can learn from my mistakes.” (Nazareth doesn't comment publicly on personnel issues.)

It appears they have. Karen Kelsky, an academic job consultant who moderates the blog the Professor Is In, said she’s been flooded with queries from tenure-track job seekers worried about becoming the next W. Their concerns prompted Kelsky to write a new advice piece about negotiating, using W as case study. Although she says W made several big mistakes, Kelsky says Nazareth is most at fault for not trying to work with the Ph.D. it was about to hire. She encourages would-be professors not to rule out negotiating based on the anecdote, and others like it.

Kelsky isn’t surprised that W’s story had struck such a nerve. Negotiating, like other aspects of the academic job market, is “shrouded in mystery, and even more shrouded than many other elements,” she said via email. That’s because “it's the one element that deals directly and unmistakably about money and the financial basis of the profession.”

And on another level, Kelsky added, W’s experience sounds “a bit like a horror story that perfectly encapsulates everyone's greatest fears and anxieties about the market and candidates' total lack of power and agency therein.”

Kelsky compared the rescinded offer to a kind of academic “Walking Dead”: a “zombie abomination, a living thing emptied of life, revealing your total abjection and vulnerability in a once-functioning system that has collapsed on itself.”

Paul Levy, a senior advisor at the negotiating firm Lax Sebenius who has served in both faculty and administrative roles at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, was also unsurprised that W’s story attracted so much interest. “I think everybody, particularly in an academic situation [where competition for jobs is fierce], and elsewhere, have been in the situation where they’ve been offered a job and they’re making the internal calculation whether to negotiate and how hard to do it,” he said.

Only 40 percent of workers report negotiating, while 90 percent of employers say they expect new hires to negotiate, said Levy, co-author of How to Negotiate Your First Job: 8 Steps That Will Create Value for You and Your New Employer. Despite job candidates’ fears, Levy said that negotiating – done right – can be a win for both the department and the candidate.

“There’s a wonderful irony here,” Levy said. “There’s the opportunity to get more for yourself and to build better relationships with your employers, but the way you do it is really important.”

Echoing many commenters, Levy said W’s first mistake was sending the requests by email. He said it’s an “imperfect medium” for communication and a conversation over Skype, or ideally, in person, can go a long way in building a relationship that could last years or even decades.

Unlike Kelsky, Levy said Nazareth wasn’t unethical in rescinding the offer for an apparent bad “fit.” And Nazareth was well within its legal rights to do so, as the offer was just that – an offer. (Some commenters have said Nazareth discriminated against W in rescinding the offer upon her request for maternity leave. But experts in negotiating interviewed for this article and a previous one said W’s requests as a whole were clearly unrealistic for a small liberal arts college.)

“A deal isn’t a deal until it’s done, and this was not done,” Levy said.

At the same time, he added, a search committee chair so inclined could have called W and said, “I’d like to pretend this email never existed. It’s going to raise a lot of hackles about your candidacy and I’m giving you a heads-up.”

Jaded, Ph.D., an anonymous full-time, non-tenure track university professor of philosophy who moderates Philosophy Smoker, remains one of W's biggest defenders. In an email, Jaded suggested that the backlash against W reveals more about the state of academe than her negotiation skills.

"The quickness to judge W's character from some perceived 'tone' of her e-mail by commenters absent any larger context and Nazareth's judgment that some fairly standard requests represented a lack of commitment to teaching on W's part demonstrate the fine line academics in general and job candidates specifically have to walk," Jaded said. "Express yourself in a way that can be taken to demonstrate a strong commitment to research, run the risk of scaring off teaching colleges and being labeled as out-of-touch. Express yourself in a way that demonstrates a strong commitment to teaching, run the risk of scaring off research universities and being labeled as an unserious scholar."
She added: "The reactions to W raise legitimate issues about how we view one another and especially women in the academy."

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