Job offer negotiations and relationships with our future colleagues.

Many pixels have already been devoted to discussing the case of W, the philosophy job candidate who says her job offer was rescinded after she inquired with the department making the offer about what adjustments in start-date, salary, new teaching preps per year, pre-tenure sabbatical, and maternity leave might be possible. Rather than indicating which requests were just not possible, the department’s response to the inquiry withdrew the offer of employment entirely with the justification that the items about which W asked indicated “an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.”

In case you’ve been glued to your grading instead of the internet, The Philosophy Smoker has a nice round-up of the commentary. It’s worth noting too that some have expressed doubts that this try to negotiate/lose the offer scenario could really have happened as described. Whether it did or not, I think this is a good opportunity to examine the relationship at the center of negotiations between a hiring department and a job candidate — namely, the relationship between future colleagues.

When an academic department is conducting a job search, it is trying to hire someone to address the department’s needs. These needs may include teaching particular courses, developing new curriculum, advising students, spreading out committee work, contributing to a department culture that supports good pedagogy, productive research, and so forth. The specific needs of a department and the specific culture its members create are very much connected to facts on the ground — whether it is part of a college or university that is teaching-focused or research-focused, how willing the administration is to release funds to the department, how many students the department serves, how many faculty members there are to take on the shared work.

Search committees looking for a good “fit” between job candidates and the faculty position they are trying to fill seek not only candidates who can address the department’s needs but also candidates who show some grasp of those needs, some awareness of (or at least interest in) the facts on the ground that constrain how those needs can be met. If the department’s primary need is for a new faculty member to teach a significant part of the curriculum and the candidate asks to be excused from all pre-tenure teaching duties, that would probably indicate that the candidate didn’t grok the department’s needs and might not be able to contribute enthusiastically to meeting them.

However, a new faculty hire is not like a wireless learning-delivery device. A new faculty hire is a human who, in the course of helping to achieve the shared goals of the department, can be legitimately expected to pursue goals of her own.

Some of these individual goals ought to be goals shared by the department hiring the job candidate, chief among them creating conditions in which the new hire can contribute to meeting the department’s needs in a sustainable way over the long term. One of the big advantages here for the department is that creating such conditions can help obviate the need for another faculty search, a time- and labor-intensive process in the best of circumstances.

When you’ve gone through the trouble of a search, you don’t want to hire a candidate who’ll end up leaving in a few years for a job somewhere else that she perceives as a better fit for her needs. Neither do you want to hire someone who you’ll have to replace in six or seven years because she cannot do what she needs to do to get tenured.

Ideally, you want a job candidate who has been reflective about what she may need to be able to do a good job meeting the department’s needs and meeting her own needs — including being able to establish her case for retention, tenure, and promotion.

A job candidate who hash’t given this thought may put herself in situations where she cannot do an adequate job meeting the department’s needs — or where she can meet those needs, but only by courting burnout or ignoring other tasks she needs to do to get tenured.

This is a place where the case of W suggests to me a candidate who demonstrated thoughtfulness about how to support a department’s teaching mission in a sustainable way. In a small department, faculty members each need to do significant teaching to cover the curriculum. But preparing a course that works well with the actual population of students to be taught benefits tremendously from feedback from those actual students and modification in response to that feedback. W inquired whether it was possible to cap her new course preps at three per year for the first three years. Preparing three new courses per year requires substantial labor in itself. Road-testing them to make sure they meet the students’ needs as well in practice as in imagination is the kind of thing that ensures the prepared courses really are serving the needs of the department offering them. As well, limiting new preps while the new hire is getting immersed in the culture of the department is a reasonable way not to spread her too thin.

It may be that facts on the ground mean that the new hire will need to have more new course preps than this or else the department’s needs will not be met. But for a candidate to recognize the labor involved in doing the job right should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in meeting those needs.

The dance between search committees and candidates is complicated and emotionally fraught, each side trying to evaluate “fit” on the basis of necessarily incomplete information since many questions are only answered when the new hire actually succeeds or doesn’t in meeting the particular needs in the particular circumstances. In the absence of a perfectly accurate view of the future, evaluating how well a candidate fills particular curricular needs, understands and can support the mission of the department, and will be able to pursue their individual goals (with respect to pedagogy, scholarship, professional development, work-life balance) in this environment requires honest communication on both sides.

Candidates should be honest about their long-range aspirations and should not pretend to be a good fit for a position if they are not. Search committees should be expansive in their recognition of the plurality of individual goals that probably fit with the department’s needs. Both sides should understand that job candidates are frequently in a moment where they are legitimately poised between — and open to — different professional environments and trajectories, different people they could become within their professions.

It’s suboptimal for a department when a candidate pretends to be a good fit and accepts a job merely to stave off unemployment until her dream job somewhere else comes along. By the same token, it’s suboptimal for a candidate when a department cares only for its own needs rather than taking the candidate’s individual needs into account.

A job candidate is not a mere means to fulfill your department’s ends. Buyer’s market or not, a job candidate should not be treated as a supplicant deserving of punishment for asking questions in good faith. A job candidate is your potential colleague. A job candidate to whom an offer of employment has been extended should be treated as your future colleague.

Punishing your future colleague for asking what kind of support is available for her professional endeavors (including her professional endeavors that directly address needs your department hopes to meet by hiring her) suggests there is something badly wrong with your understanding of your relationship with that future colleague. It suggests that you are OK with using her, and it probably doesn’t bode well for your relationship with any new colleagues you manage to hire.

Whatever the facts on the ground may be, exploiting members of your professional community as mere means rather than recognizing them as legitimate ends in themselves is bad behavior — the kind of behavior job candidates should not expect from hiring departments. If that’s the relationship you expect to enact with your new faculty hire, you should at least have the decency to spell this out when you make an offer so job candidates will have no illusions about what it is you’re offering.

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

Posted in Academia, Ethics 101, Philosophy, Professional ethics.

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