The Tenure Take-Back

The response to a professor who lost her job offer when she tried to negotiate reveals the skewed priorities of academia.

The Golisano Academic Center houses many of Nazareth College’s academic programs.
Nazareth College’s Golisano Academic Center

Courtesy of Nazareth College/Flickr

As my Slate colleague Katy Waldman has written, it appears that in the buyer’s market of academia, “lean in” is a dangerous fallacy. For men and women both, it’s not “lean in” so much as “bend over.” According to the widely read blog the Philosophy Smoker, a job candidate identified as “W” recently received an offer for a tenure-track position at Nazareth College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. Like many recipients of job offers, W viewed the original bid as the opening move in a series of negotiations, and thus submitted the following counteroffer, after informing the department—with whom she says she had been in friendly contact—that she was about to switch into “negotiation mode”:

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.

However, instead of coming back with a severely tempered counter-counter (“$57k, maternity, and LOL”), or even a “Take it or leave it, bub,” Nazareth allegedly rescinded the entire offer:

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.

The candidate was shocked. “This is how I thought negotiating worked,” she explained to the Philosophy Smoker in a follow-up missive, “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. I was expecting to get very few of the perks I asked about, if anything … I just thought there was no harm in asking.” The Philosophy Smoker found it “flabbergasting.” (A representative for Nazareth College told us they were unable to comment on a personnel matter; an attempt to reach out to W for comment has so far been unsuccessful.)

However, as the story spread over the academic Web faster than a case of resurgent measles, it became increasingly clear that not everybody was flabbergasted. According to many outspoken residents of the ivory tower, W’s mildly aggressive email committed so many unforgivable faux pas that she’s lucky she’s not in jail.

Reactions to the story’s coverage in Inside Higher Ed skewed sanctimonious: W’s requests were, apparently, “beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.” She is a “young, immature candidate with unreasonable expectations.” And I can only hope this caring nurturer was being sarcastic: “Who the hell does this woman think she is? … I’m sitting at a rest stop on the NJ turnpike watching fast food operatives dispense burgers and pizza slices: That’s the alternative to an academic position for people, particularly women, with philosophy degrees. What an arrogant women (sic) imagining that she had any bargaining chips!!!”

This, as I see it, is the heart of the outrage over what in many other industries is considered standard procedure. How dare this “women” think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: “Should I bring my own snorkel?” Any beginning academic who tries to stand up for herself is lunch for the hordes of traumatized ivory-tower zombies, themselves now irreversibly infected with the obsequious self-devaluation and totalizing cowardice that go by the monikers “collegiality” and “a good fit.”

Another sniveling kowtower—sorry, “collegial” job marketer—commenting on the original Philosophy Smoker post claimed it impossible even to “get into the headspace of those who think Naz[areth] is acting immorally or indefensibly. I suspect that attitude comes from the same overinflated sense of self worth and entitlement W’s requests had. I would recommend getting over yourselves, but then again, keeping your attitude only serves to open up the job market for more sober minds. So, please, continue to trash your prospects for me!”

Yes, many are also rushing heartily to W’s defense, such as influential academic consultant Karen Kelsky, who explains the pile-on to me this way: “It is too painful to contemplate the utter powerlessness of job candidates in this environment … so better to attribute excessive power to them, in the form of ‘bad behavior’ and ‘sense of entitlement’ and ‘poor collegiality.’ ”

Kelsky is concerned that the publicity surrounding this instance (which she believes is a rarity) will “throw job seekers as a whole into a panic,” and that they will “relinquish the genuine leverage they almost always do have to negotiate elements of their offers.” To help, she is offering a free webinar on tenure-track negotiation on Thursday. She has also launched—in the vein of the Ph.D. debt project—a crowd-sourced document calling for stories of rescinded offers—several have already been posted, and they include stories of spousal-hire deal breakers and “verbal offers” gone awry.

Despite such power players in W’s corner, however, the fact remains that in a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.

The condemnation of Nazareth, should this story turn out to be true, should be near universal. W did nothing wrong except attempt to negotiate in good faith. But obviously, she doesn’t know the world in which she’s found herself trapped. In academia, any sense of self-worth whatsoever is “overinflated.” The proper way to “negotiate” an academic offer is to counter with offers to do more work: I want to be a team player, so I can take on 10 new courses a semester, or more even. And I shall never be so unforgivably selfish as to procreate, unless you count my true babies—my publications!

That is what this job market requires. Anyone who isn’t willing to bend over is out. If you don’t like it, best of luck “finding a suitable position”—and make sure that you take, with utmost gratitude, whatever offer they deign to give you.