On Treating the Unprepared as if they were Unmotivated and Unworthy

An academic job market story yesterday reminded me of the perils of interpreting lack of preparation with lack of worth. A philosophy candidate for a job at Nazareth College in Rochester was offered the job, made some fairly common requests, and then promptly saw the job offer rescinded.  UPDATE: The candidate has revealed more details. As I hope should be clear below, she seems like a real class act to me, if perhaps misinformed.

Below I’ll first go over my agreement with many commentators that whether this was legal or not, it was unethical and outside of normal academic job market conventions, but then lay out why the specifics of her requests might have seemed quite unreasonable to the committee and administration. Finally, I’ll close with how I think Nazareth could have handled the situation better.

First, this represents a disregard for what most candidates understand the process of job interviewing to be, and what I would think is a common labor practice. The candidates interview, the committee deliberates, then the top candidate is offered the job. From the candidates point of view, at that point they heave a sigh of relief, and begin negotiation. The interview is over, they have been found meritorious, and now (as I was advised) they have the most power that they will ever have in academia. As I have read and heard many stories (and as fits the excellent book “Getting to Yes”) the power one has at this negotiation is directly related to “the best alternative to non-agreement,” or BATNA. If one is in a field where there were 200 applicants, and not much separation between them, then the employer may be more likely to say, sorry, no negotiation is possible, here is the offer, take it or leave it. However, if one is in, say, accounting, with 10 applicants or so, then a candidate is likely to have more power. But my understanding (and the understanding of every candidate) is that an offer puts a pole in the ground and moves the process to another stage. What this development (even if legal) means is that Nazareth College treated the negotiation as a continued part of the interview. “Sorry, candidate, you failed the “negotiating for the job” part of the interview, no job offer for you.” There are all sorts of reasons this is chilling, as it represents further erosion of any power or rights that the prospective academic labor force has. It leads me to consider all sorts of macabre scenarios: What if a dean found three (or five) equal candidates and put the job offer up for auction? How low can you go? What if, as seems to be a new trend for internships, candidates had to bid on how much they would pay to get the job? Admittedly, these are horrible. They have to be illegal, don’t they? (Please. Someone tell me they are illegal. Seriously.)

I think it is clear that the college acted unjustly and outside the normal bounds of job process negotiation, but their actions relate to a larger phenomena, seeing behavior that reflects unpreparedness or unfamiliarity with the situation, and treating this behavior as if it reflects poorly on the person. This is a kind of bias called the fundamental attribution error, and it has particularly pernicious effects in education. In this case, given what I know of the job search process at small liberal arts colleges, this candidate was quite unprepared for this negotiation,and her requests, while they might have seemed common to her, and indeed to many of my colleagues at large research places, do reflect a drastic lack of preparation on her part. To get at why this is (and to perhaps help future candidates) I think it is necessary to get into the details of her email and the specifics of the job.

Here are her requests:

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.

And here are why they are each highly unlikely, if not absurd.

First, the salary. Candidates, check out the AAUP Salary Survey for that college. Here is Nazareth College’s entry. Assistant professors (pre-tenure) make an average of $58,000. This collapses across the 6 years one is commonly an assistant professor. If it was done purely on seniority, with regular pay raises (which is unlikely, but a good baseline) this would mean that most year assistant professors after 3 or 4 years there are making $58,000 in years 5 and 6 probably closer to $60-62,000, but in years 1-2 closer to $52,000. Associate professors (after tenure) make on average $69,000, which collapses across the at least 6 years people spend at that rank. Going up for full professor at exactly 6 years is not as common as the tenure clock, so associate professor probably includes some people who have been at the college for 6-10 or more years. So, long story short, the candidate is asking for $65,000, which is probably about what most faculty make after they get tenure at Nazareth College. The chair of the philosophy department is an associate professor, who has a book out in 2012, looks like he could be recently tenured. Long story short, she could very well be asking for more than the chair makes, which is probably not a good place to start.

Second, the official semester of maternity leave. This is what struck some of my academic colleagues on twitter as evidence of gender discrimination and a motivation for a lawsuit. I am not saying that there isn’t gender discrimination here, but this seems to me like it might be a more thorny request than it seems. I wondered first what is the current policy at Nazareth on maternity leaves? I am not a lawyer, but it strikes me that something like this may not be subject to negotiation, and for good reason. For example, I know that many colleges in the past offered free tuition to children of faculty as a perk. The problem was that they excluded staff. A Supreme Court case found that colleges could not separate their different kinds of staff in this way, so now if a college wants to offer a tuition benefit, they must do so for all staff, not just faculty. In practice what this meant was that many large school immediately dropped this benefit. Many small schools retain it since we don’t employ the small city of staff that a large research university does. If maternity leave falls into this category, it may well be illegal to offer paid maternity leave to faculty and not to staff. Either way, it might be a standard benefit less subject to negotiation than the candidate thinks. But that is speculation on my part…

But even if the leave weren’t paid maternity leave, but unpaid, or a research leave of some sort, as she is asking for in item 3, it does represent a significant cost to the college, and a severe misreading of the kind of place Nazareth is. From the comments of the original post, it looks like the standard teaching load at Nazareth is 4-4. If the candidate is asking for a semester leave pre-tenure (which I assume is not included, given that she had to request it) the college will have to replace those 4 courses, either with adjuncts or with half an instructor salary, which seems to be how they are staffing a lot of courses. The philosophy department has four full-time, tenure track (all tenured, in fact) faculty, and five lecturers. Depending on how much they pay adjuncts or lecturers, that would amount to anywhere between 12K and 25K, which is not a small request at a place like that. For example, I would not be surprised if the price tag for a leave like that was close to the startup budget for the entire entering cohort of tenure track faculty.

Item 4 strikes many readers as totally reasonable, and it may be, but it would likely be something to work out with the department chair. How many preps do philosophy faculty usually have? I know in small departments that are also in small schools that have to cover both general education requirements and major classes, one could have three preps in a semester (with a 4-4 teaching load).

Item 5 is common, I have no problem with asking that, but also a common thing to turn down, or negotiate down to starting a semester late.

Ok, but given that I think a few of these requests are pretty far out of the range of what is possible, why do I still think the college was clearly in the wrong? Here is what they said:

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.

If we take them at their word (unlikely, but a good exercise) the Search Committee and the VPAA and Dean interpreted these provisions as lack of interest in a teaching school, and not a lack of preparation for the negotiation. I would say that what they likely decided was that the provisions indicated a lack of suitability for this job, not just a lack of “interest.”  But whether interest or inherent suitability for the job, their decision indicates several of their failures.

First, a failure of the philosophy department (and indeed the whole interview process) to educate the candidate and adjust her expectations for what kind of college she was considering. I am sure they have some sort of pre-tenure research opportunities, which they no doubt told her about. But they should have been clear about what a 4-4 teaching load meant and what was typical about the duties and responsibilities of pre-tenure members of the department.

Second, a failure of imagination. This candidate may be a great philosopher and a great teacher, but she clearly has not been advised by someone familiar with small liberal arts colleges. Is that a personal failing on her part? I am not so sure. To me it points to a lack of mentoring in graduate school. Could she have googled as much as I have above and adjusted her salary expectations? Sure. But someone needed to sit down with her earlier in this process and be candid about what it means to work at a place with a 4-4 teaching load, a department of 4 full time faculty in a school with 2200 undergraduates and a low endowment in tough economic times. The fact that she did not have an mentor that did that for her does not indicate her unworthiness or lack of motivation, just that she was enrolled in a typical doctoral program at an elite large university with a faculty who know little or nothing about small liberal arts colleges. She shouldn’t be punished for (incredibly common) shortcomings of her training.

I’ll close by relating this to students. More and more students are coming to college with less and less preparation for both the academic rigors and social rules of college. As college professors we can treat them as unworthy and unmotivated, or we could take a deep breath, take them aside and remind ourselves that in more cases than not, it is not that they don’t have the inherent desire or interest to be successful in college, they just don’t know how to do college. We need to take them aside and say “Our college has found you a worthy student by admitting you, but you don’t know how to do this yet, here are some clear instructions on how to do college here.” I think the search committee at Nazareth would do well to take a page out of their own teaching philosophy and said to this candidate “Our college has found you a worthy candidate by offering you the job, but you don’t know how to negotiate for a job at a SLAC, here’s some information on how to do that.” Who knows, maybe they say they can’t honor any of those provisions and she turns them down. But then they go to their next candidate, and she doesn’t spill the beans on the internet.