Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Ask the Administrator: "We Don't Really Like You, But..."

An already-employed correspondent (it's relevant) writes:

I am not sure, but I think that I may have just received one of the more insulting job offers ever. Technically, it wasn't an offer, the dean called to see if I was still interested in the job so that she/he could pull together the official offer. When she/he called, she/he said, within the first two sentences, "I'll be honest with you, we've had a few people turn us down already." She/he repeated this at the end of the conversation, adding, "just so we are clear." His/her enthusiasm was clearly overwhelming.

Since the interview was over a month ago, I was the last person interviewed, and the committee said that they would make their decision in "a week to ten days," I had kinda sorta figured that I wasn't their star candidate. In fact, I had stopped waiting for the "thank you but no" letter. So, when the dean called and included this rather obvious tidbit, it gave me pause.

Understand that I am not complaining. I find this lack of tact amusing, and it made for a great story over the weekend. I'm just wondering what to make of such a statement. First, why would a dean say such a thing at all, especially given that they are probably becoming rather desperate for a hire? Second, what sort of situation might this imply at that college? Am I being paranoid in thinking that I could potentially be walking into a hostile environment? Finally, can I use their desperation and lack of enthusiasm in courting me in the salary negotiation (which leads to the tangential question, do community colleges negotiate on salaries)?

I am in the ever-so-rare and fortunate situation of being at an acceptable job, with a salary that affords a comfortable living; but this community college is more in the direction that I would like to take my career. If they are telegraphing to me that they will accept me but don't really want me, then I don't want to leave this acceptable situation for one that might be hostile and is in a much more expensive city. I can wait for another opportunity if it means avoiding disaster. (I know, we should all have these dilemmas!)


A few possibilities leap to mind:

  1. The dean doesn't really want you, so he's sending negative messages your way to discourage you from accepting the position. My best guess there would be that the department thought more highly of you than he did, and he's annoyed that, having initially defeated the department by first making offers to his favorites, it may win in the end. So he's trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by making an unmistakably lame offer to the department's candidate. If the search fails and has to be reopened, he has another shot.

  1. The dean wants to undercut your confidence, so you don't exploit your very real bargaining power. If you really are the last woman standing, then you're the only thing standing between them and a failed search. He's trying to get power back by playing mindgames with you. If you're terrified that they don't really want you, you won't press your advantage because you won't be aware that you have it.

  1. The dean was exasperated, and failed to control his frustration. It has nothing in particular to do with you – he's frustrated at other issues at the college, and everything is going wrong, and he's taking this search as yet another example of things flying out of control -- but he seriously needs to get a grip. Part of being a dean is mastering what an ex-girlfriend called “the swan” -- look calm above the water while you paddle like hell underneath.

  1. The dean is a complete #%()%# idiot.

(There may well be fifth and sixth and seventh possibilities – I'll leave it to my wise and worldly readers to chime in with those.)

I prefer to treat explanation 4 as an 'if all else fails' answer, since it pretty much renders further analysis futile. That said, there are times when 4 is the truth. If you believe that 4 is the truth, I'd think twice about working there.

If it's 3, then I wouldn't worry too much about it. (Not having heard his tone, I'll leave it to you to decide if this is relevant.) The dean may be fraying, but that's really not your problem. Make the choice you want to make, and leave his psychodrama to him.

If it's 2, play hardball. Use your advantage to get the best deal you can. (My cc isn't much for negotiating, but I don't know if that's universal.) If the best deal isn't good enough, walk away. Once you sign on, you lose the power, so use it while you have it.

If it's 1, the danger is real, but easily overstated. Deans come and go much more quickly than do department chairs and colleagues (most of the time); if the department likes you and the dean doesn't, chances are that the long-term outlook is actually pretty good. (The initial salary offer may suck, though.) Once you're in, you're probably okay. Getting in will be the hard part.

The good news is that your best course of action probably doesn't depend on reading these tea leaves. Make the call for yourself as to whether or not this is where you want to be, and if so, at what salary. The internal politicking and psychodrama behind the choice to hire you or not is largely moot once you're there. Circumstances change quickly. The dean could be gone in a year, or you could knock the ball out of the park and win him over, or illnesses or retirements could shift the staffing balance and suddenly make you indispensable. (I've seen that last one personally – someone who was very nearly fired early on, abruptly became irreplaceable. It happens.) I've seen much-ballyhooed hires disappoint, and cross-your-fingers hires become stars. Once you're on the bus, how you got on doesn't mean much.

Tune out the silliness, and make the best call for yourself. Even if your mindreading is flawless, circumstances (and personnel) change. If you get and keep a clear sense of what's important to you, and don't get distracted by contingent nonsense, the random stuff should cancel out.

Good luck!

Battle-scarred readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

There are truly only two options....laugh hysterically as you wish them lots of luck, or bargain like a used car dealer for a great salary.
You have to bargain hard in this situation. If it were me I’d assume that the new environment will be everything I most fear it to be and want a salary appropriate to the risk / working environment. The post doesn’t say what the job security of the position will be. If it’s not tenure there’s a lot of risk going into a place where someone in management doesn’t want you.
I'd add a #5: You squeaked by the faculty vote, but only over vocal opposition by folks in a position to make life difficult for both you and the dean if you come on board. This would be a likely scenario if the faculty is factionalized (by politics, subspecialty, whatever), you clearly fall in one of the camps, and the other camp is unhappy about your hire. The dean may be on the side of the losing camp, or may just want to avoid the crossfire by hiring a "neutral" candidate.
You get such interesting e-mail, DD.

An initial comment on the interview order. Don't read anything into that. Best candidate first only applies if they can hire on the spot, without seeing the rest of the short list. I have seen a department (at a research uni) deliberately bring in the best candidate last. However, it is equally likely that travel considerations dictate the schedule more than anything.

Next, this person should definitely say (verbally) that they are still interested. Heck, s/he applied, right? You must be interested in the job unless you didn't like it when you visited. You have to see a written offer before making up your mind. That will also tell you (if you don't already know) whether bargaining (item 2) is possible.

I'd consider item #3. You interviewed in (say) the first week of June. The committee met the next week, and a decision was made in the 3rd week of June for candidate A. A had a week or so to decide, and used all of that time to get a matching offer before turning them down towards the end of June. So (with July 4th in the middle to mess with schedules) they decide to go after candidate B in early July. Process repeats, taking another 2 weeks or so. Now you get a call. The sole reason for the call might be to figure out if you will waste another 2 weeks of the 4 weeks the Dean has to fill the position. Indeed, the Dean might have just gotten off the phone with candidate B and been in a really bad mood after being strung along for a few weeks.

Bargaining sort of begs the question of why s/he applied for a new job, so part of the angst must be "the devil you don't know versus the one you know too well." What did you think during your visit? Is the Dean's phone call the only negative thing about the trip? [I was once in a similar situation, choosing between two offers with bargaining on both ends, and the trip was part of the final decision.]One way around that uncertainty might be to discuss it (by phone, not e-mail) with the search chair or some other faculty member you connected with there.
I'd contact the department chair, tell him you are considering the offer but are puzzled by the Deans comments. Then if still interested, bargain like a used car dealer....
I might even call the dean and ask him directly "whats up with this crap".
Yep. Talk to the chair of the search committee. Talk to the department chair. Talk to the dean. Talk to the dean's boss. Tell them what you've told Dean Dad, that community college teaching is "the direction that I would like to take my career" but you "just received one of the more insulting job offers ever."

If you want try to find out what's up, you need to ask.

As far as bargaining over salary goes, if there's a union contract in place, forget about it. If there's no union contract, I'd be very, very leery about taking a job under the conditions you've described.

Isn't it often wise to refrain from attributing to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity or something at least as common?

IMO, the correspondent should relax a little and not take things personally. I've worked for a lot of different deans/department chairs, and only about half of them had what I would describe as well-developed relational skills. A couple of them were really skilled at handling people, the vast majority were sort of in the middle, and a couple were totally awful.

About six or seven years ago, my department was interviewing for a couple tenure-track spots. We had some good candidates that emerged from the first-level interviews, but everyone in my locale was hiring like gangbusters at that time, so by the time the second level interviews had been concluded and offers extended, the top three candidates had already accepted positions from faster-moving colleges. We were left with the two worst candidates, whom we ended up hiring (much to my regret, it turned out). The way this all played out, my chair was kind of pissed off and grumpy about the whole experience. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was a little short with the bottom-of-the-barrel candidates that we ended up hiring. Some people are not as sensitive to the requirements of decorum as others. He might have even been careless enough to disclose that he was not thrilled with the outcome of the process. After all, at a different time, this same chair walked into a meeting where some senior women faculty (with whom he was sort of quarreling) were sitting at a table and remarked "It smells like synthetic estrogen in here."

Final thought: so far as negotiating a salary is concerned, my institution is one of those who does not negotiate, at least where faculty positions are concerned. So far as I know, none of the other colleges in my area do that.
I wouldn't read anything into the tone and would assume the Dean just has no sense about how to treat people (which may or may not influence your decision!).

I am reminded of an experience one of my former students had during her interview. She went to the dean's office and that Dean bashed her research, said bad things about my university (you know, the one the student was graduating from), and was generally rude and unpleasant for the entire conversation. Then, it took them months to call her -- during which time she had decided she didn't even want the job because of the dean's behavior in her interview. Once they contacted her, though, they made an offer intriguing enough for her to consider it. She called a couple folks to feel out the dean's situation and decided she could live with it. She took the job, loves the job, gets nothing but support from the dean, etc. To tps27jmnzhis day, no one knows what the interview behavior was about.
Hello everyone and Dean Dad!

I am the letter writer, and I thank you all for your insights and advice. Subsequent interaction with the Dean has led me to beleive that the Dean had just received the second (or third? fourth? eighth?) rejection and was just very frustrated.

I was completely prepared to bargain like a used car salesman, as advised; but they made me an offer that far exceeded what I had been planning to ask for, given all of the factors. So, thus far, things have worked out. When does that happen, ever?

Thank you again everyone. In this world of easy paranois, sometimes a person just needs to hear stuff outside of her own head to get some perspective. All of you did the job quite well!
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