Monday, May 05, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Waiting for the Official Offer

A returning correspondent writes:

First I want to thank you and your readers for responding to a couple
of different questions I've submitted in the past few months about
applying for jobs and moving from a faculty position at a community
college to a faculty position at a four-year college. It appears
everyone's advice and my efforts paid off and I am going to be offered
the position I want.

Second, I want to ask a couple more questions.

1. Two weeks ago, the chair of the department I will be joining
contacted me to tell me I was the choice of the committee and
department and that I would be contacted "soon" with an "official
offer." I asked how soon and by whom I'd be contacted and the answers
were "within days" and "by the dean." Two weeks have gone by and I
have heard nothing official. I contacted the chair after ten days and
she said, "Don't worry." I'm not worried—much. But I am very curious
about what could be taking so long. Dean Dad, as an administrator, can
you shed some light on all the "behind the scenes" stuff that has to
happen to make an offer for a faculty position official?

2. Any advice on negotiating an offer?

This is painfully familiar.

I'll outline the process at my college, which isn't all that unusual. Your mileage may vary, but I think the outline is common enough.

Departmental search committees screen the candidates, interview them, and usually decide on a ranking. They then submit their top two or three candidates to my office. I act as a sort of reality check, making sure that their choice isn't just a result of inbreeding or other bias. (I've only shot down a committee's first choice once, in a really egregious case that even the nominating department now sheepishly admits was a mistake. Since then, I've found that the value of my participation is mostly as a deterrent to the kinds of shenanigans that used to ensue; at this point, the departments are much better about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.) Assuming they've made a reasonable choice, I endorse it and send it to the VP. He settles on a salary figure, negotiates with the candidate, and makes a formal recommendation to the President. The President then takes it to the Board of Trustees. Nothing is actually official until the Board of Trustees ratifies it. They've never actually shot one down, but the potential is always there.

It's a slow and clunky process. The candidate doesn't get a salary figure until we're pretty far along, which makes for an awkward interview with me. The Board only meets once a month, so if you miss the deadline for a particular month, the process can drag.

Although our process is frustratingly (even maddeningly) slow, it does a pretty good job of quality control. I can honestly say that everybody hired on my watch has turned out well, which is a point of real pride.

So it's entirely possible for a candidate to knock it out of the park, get unanimous approval, and still take several weeks from the interview to wend through the process. I'd rather that weren't true, but there it is.

I've heard of cases elsewhere – thankfully, not at my college – in which a search gets canceled or a position downgraded after the wheels have already been set in motion. (An example of downgrading would be reclassifying a position from 'tenure-track' to 'one-year visiting.') Sometimes it happens for reasons outside the college's control – midyear state budget cuts, for example, as happened this year in Kentucky – but usually it's a result either of dreadful planning or of internal politics. Although it's rarely, if ever, intentional, in effect it amounts to bait-and-switch for the candidate.

The key points from the candidate's perspective are:

  1. It's not about you.

  2. It's usually, though not always, harmless.

  3. Always take the high road.

At this point, I think you'd be well within your rights and the boundaries of professionalism to ask the chair to walk you through an anticipated timeline. Don't be emotional when making the request; just ask for some clarity. Annoyingly, the clarity may take the form of “the Board doesn't meet for three more weeks,” but at least then you'll know. On the other hand, if the answer you get is evasive or mysterious, then you might want to keep other options open.

Good luck! I hope, and expect, that this will turn out to be harmless.

Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? And what should the candidate do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

What should the candidate do? First of all, don't quit your day job until you have a legally binding job offer!

The one thing that comes to mind is that this could be "insane week" at that college. Finals, graduation responsibilities, grade appeals, filling classes for summer. No, not much going on right now! There could also be a lot of offers on the Dean's desk. (We hired a dozen faculty last year.)

However, keep this in mind when you put a proposal through the administration at your new college. Not all of them run like clockwork.

Finally, read the local paper on line. That will tell you if a budget axe is falling on all new positions.
We just went through this with my husband's offer. It was maddeningly slow -- we wanted to celebrate when he got the "you're the one" call, but it was probably 6 weeks before he got the official letter.

He kept looking for other positions (we needed to make a geographically-specific move), and it turned out well for us. Once he did get the official offer, he had to wait to sign it for a week until he went to one more interview that popped up and was fairly appealing to him. Because the initial school then knew he was interviewing, they sweetened his offer just a bit.

Ironically, the position at the second school ended up playing the disappearing game. They lost funding for the spot in between the interviews and decision-making meeting. He's now happily committed to the first school.

One downside of this process: he had to give 90 days notice at his current job, which we weren't willing to do without a formal offer. The first school knew about this, and now he can't start as early as they wanted him to, because their offer came to him less than 90 days before the start date they proposed.
I've only been through the process once but I was given the "you're the one" statement on the way out of the door on the day of the interview and the board didn't meet until seven weeks later. The interview was the beginning of June and the board only met once in the summer... in the middle of July. It was annoying but it worked out (eventually). I did have to schedule a moving truck and arrange a place to live without the guarantee but that was owing to my poor timing for being on the academic job search.
I've witnessed more than one search being cancelled during the process (most recently after visits have been scheduled, once even after the candidate and dean had reached a verbal agreement, ...), but that doesn't mean that ominous forces are at work.

There may be factors occurring that are beyond control of your (hopefully) future department. Look for info in the paper (as suggested), see what you can learn from the chair, ask if the chair thinks you should talk with the dean. Certainly don't give up your current job. Instead, remember that you have the most power when the school has decided that they want you, and you haven't committed to them yet. (See the comment by 6:21 anonymous.)

Also take into account CCPhysicist's comment about the time of the semeter. There's a whole lot that isn't happening in my life right now because of the many end-of-semester academic responsibilities. (It's relieving that the paper galleys I'm awaiting haven't arrived yet.)
I'm the original correspondent. Thought I'd let you know that I finally got the official after 3 weeks.
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