A little more than two years ago now, I left my position as an Associate Professor at Alliant International University in Los Angeles. Many people have asked me since then why I left full time academic work. The position was relatively well-paid, with good job security. I had good colleagues, many of whom are friends to this day. I had the closest thing to tenure that the university offered: A five-year rolling contract. And I was teaching and doing research, both of which I love.
I’ve gotten used to providing a diplomatic answer to that question. My wife and I were starting a family, and the time had come for me to make a change. That’s true, it’s just purposefully incomplete. Here’s the full story.
Those supporting the applicant, identified only as “W,” suggest the college was being sexist by refusing to negotiate with the woman when men negotiate terms of their employment commonly, including in academia. Those supporting the college are responding by describing W as immature and entitled, with criticisms boiling down to “Who the hell does she think she is?”
The histrionics are wrong on both sides. W was, like any applicant, wise to negotiate. But in what she asked for, she overplayed her hand and revealed a worrisome lack of knowledge about the university she was seeking to enter. There is no clear evidence the college was being sexist, even if many commentaries supporting Nazareth and criticizing the applicant have been.
For those readers not in academia, a tenure-track professorship is a big deal. It offers at least the potential of tenure, which at most schools means very strong job security. Tenure-track positions are increasingly rare, so they are very prized — putting universities at an advantage when negotiating the terms for such a hire.
Allegedly — and that term applies to this whole story, since it’s all based on W’s report to the blog The Philosophy Smoker — W received her initial job offer, and treated it like the beginning of a negotiation process. She responded with this:
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.
It is fully appropriate to negotiate salary in such a situation, and W has since said that her request was less than 20% above what was originally offered. The request for capping new class preps may or may not be reasonable; depending on her prior teaching experience, this might limit her to teaching no more than three classes total in her first year (which would be highly unusual), or it might not have much practical impact at all (if most of the classes the university wanted her to teach were ones she had taught elsewhere before, and thus would not need to create from scratch).
The maternity leave request seems silly — the university already would have to accommodate maternity leave in accordance with the law, and it is hard to tell what she meant by an “official semester” of such leave. But W said it was simply an effort to put in writing what she had already been informally offered, so let’s take her at her word there.
W’s mistakes are in the rest of the requests. (By the way, I am using that term “requests” purposefully — those who have been casting her requests as “demands” are themselves failing to understand how negotiation works. They also are apparently failing to actually read W’s letter.) The pre-tenure sabbatical and moved-start-date requests are would give any university pause, not because the requester is a woman, but because accommodating such requests just doesn’t happen at this type of school. A research university might honor such requests, though even there it would be extremely rare.
In a response rescinding the job offer entirely, Nazareth suggests that W should have been aware of that:
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.
Liberal arts schools hire faculty to teach. (“Student-centered” is obtuse language, but it generally indicates that the school is focused more heavily on teaching and mentorship than on research.) If they hired for a position to start in fall 2014, they knew they would need someone who could start teaching then. If they would have been fine waiting a year to add a faculty member, they would have waited a year to do the hiring process.
You might argue that pushing her start date would not be a tremendous burden on the university — they could always hire more adjuncts — but this ignores the very real needs a university has for program administration, student advising and mentorship, and faculty governance, tasks that simply are not accomplished by part-timers. Depending on the school’s accreditors and their own internal targets, they might also have been hiring full-time faculty to meet specific requirements for the ratio of full-time faculty to full-time students.
And pre-tenure sabbatical — a (typically paid) break from teaching of a semester or more so that one can focus on research projects — is virtually unheard of. Would you go into an entry-level position in any company asking for a four-month break in your first few years?
The problem isn’t that W is a woman making these requests. It’s that the requests go far beyond what is reasonable in this context. Any good negotiator will be willing to walk away from a potential deal if the other side seems to be asking for too much. Perhaps the university unfairly blamed W for her naivete in making the requests, but regardless of whether those requests were viewed as troubling behavior in and of themselves or as a larger statement about the candidate’s preparedness, they would be enough to turn many universities away from her. It is an employer’s market in academia.
I would be the first to say that too many universities use that obtuse language of being “student-centered” to chill faculty into shutting up and making do with what the university is willing to offer them. It gets used to imply that faculty members should repress their own needs and desires in salary, benefits, and work-life balance in order for students to have lower tuition, greater access to faculty, shiny new sports facilities, or even guns on campus. And I agree with David Perry that questions of “fit” in an academic culture should be viewed skeptically, since they can be smokescreens for various forms of bias. Faculty absolutely should be critical of the use such terms, and absolutely should call out sexism where it exists in the negotiation process surrounding faculty hiring.
But there is no truly convincing evidence that sexism is present in Nazareth’s response to W. If anything, this simply seems to be an example of the importance of what one commenter on the original post noted:
This indicates how important it is to do your best to understand the culture and needs of the hiring institution, both before and during negotiations. […] “Will so-and-so be a good colleague and carry their fair share of the burden?” is often one of (if not *the*) most important considerations during the hiring process at small institutions.
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The Philosophy Smoker has a nice run-down of various commentaries since their original post was published, and takes a refreshingly positive and level-headed view of the whole debate.
Your comments here are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.