University Retracts Job Offer Over Negotiations: What This Says About Broader Conditions for Workers

A news story has been making the rounds in academic circles about a newly minted PhD job candidate who, when offered a tenure track faculty position at Nazareth College, attempted to negotiate salary and conditions only to have the college rescind the offer entirely. Here is the email the candidate says she sent the search committee:

“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.”
She ended the email by saying “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

This was the university’s response:

“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,” the email continues. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.”

By all accounts, it is unusual for universities to retract offers rather than negotiate with candidates. In my own experience and the anecdotes I have heard from nearly every colleague, the conventional wisdom is to ask for as much as you can during negotiations because it’s when you have the most leverage, but you should never expect to get everything (or even most of the things) you have requested. The advice I have always heard (and passed along to students) is that faculty are expected to negotiate job offers, and that “the worst that can happen is that they say, ‘no.’”

While all we know of this case is what was originally posted on the blog Philosophy Smoker, where it first appeared, the story as shared does reflect some larger truths about the changing nature of organizations and work.  Far from most of the 20th century organizations generally rewarded employee loyalty and long-term tenure with benefits and secure retirement packages, but now organizations are more likely to shift costs associated with employment to workers and value flexibility and adaptability in their employees. Concurrently, researchers note that in line with declining union membership in both public and private sectors, all workers have significantly less bargaining and negotiating power than they have in years past. In universities in particular, low state tax revenues have led to budget decreases that administrators often choose to rectify by hiring low paid adjuncts or by forcing tenure track faculty to supplement their salaries with external funding (which has also become more scarce). In short, these conditions create a tight labor market for workers in a range of sectors with many applicants for few job openings, and the positions that are available are more likely to be the “bad jobs” sociologist Arne Kalleberg describes with few benefits, very little long term security or potential for advancement, and low pay. In other words, the university’s decision to rescind the offer isn’t really that shocking in the contemporary context of how work (and workers) are treated today—it’s just more surprising because it happened in academia, where historically faculty have been able to enjoy more secure working conditions. I think the lesson from this narrative is that as workers continue to lose power, even a relatively protected field like academia has become more uncertain.

There are sobering implications here for how a story like this possibly reflects and can perpetuate ongoing gender inequalities. It’s notable that in the Lean In era where highly paid corporate executives like Sheryl Sandberg suggest that women can create parity simply being more proactively involved (including but not limited to negotiating for higher pay), a woman candidate attempted to do just this and lost the job she had been offered. Given that the negotiation process contributes to (but doesn’t solely explain) gendered wage inequalities, if more universities follow Nazareth’s model, it is worth questioning whether the threat of losing an offer for negotiating will contribute further to pay inequities between men and women academics.

  1. I agree with your gendered analysis, when women negotiate there is more risk that it will be seen as off, offensive or breaking gender codes.

    On the other hand, I disagree with your historical analysis. The decline in job protections has been accompanied by a wider, not narrower, window for negotiating by academics. So this philosopher was playing a contemporary game that did not exist in academia a generation ago.

    On the other hand, she was playing it poorly. A long list of wants via email, can read as a long list of demands on the other side of the interaction. A small college, a small field and the possibility is quite high that the chair, perhaps even the dean, have little experience with a negotiation of this type.

    First rule, do this over the phone so you can figure out what is reasonable and what is rude in the local context. That neoliberalism, in either its weakened labor power or increased market like negotiations has spread, does not mean it has spread evenly. You got to figure out the local rules of the game and this “negotiation” by email seems to me to be the antithesis of this.

  2. Noelle Chesley said:

    I think it is impossible to know whether sending a list of wants as part of negotiation via email was the problem here. I have been involved in several faculty searches where much of the negotiation happened that way. It may be that a phone conversation might have helped, or it may be that other things were happening behind the scenes that were going to lead to this outcome once the demands were on the table, regardless of how they were delivered. In any case, I think the conclusion that this job seeker was “playing [the game] poorly” can’t be substantiated given the facts on the table. If the gender analysis holds, it may be that a list of “demands” by a prospective female employee was bound to fail in this context however they were communicated.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments. Don, it seems that job options have become constrained for academics with shrinking university budgets and the rise of adjuncts, and that this is particularly pronounced in disciplines like philosophy. My thinking was that perhaps these factors made it easier for the school to pass on this candidate to go with someone else. So even if conditions have changed over time so that she might now be able to negotiate for things that in the past might have been unheard of (maternity leave, sabbatical, limited new preps), there were still many more candidates lined up to take her place–a buyer’s market, in other words. Do you disagree?

    Noelle, I think you raise interesting points about how much is not known by this case. All we really “know” is what’s posted on the Smoking Gun blog, and the poster appears to be declining media interviews. Your comments, to me, suggest just how murky academic job negotiations and often gender bias can be in so many contexts.

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