Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Hurry Up and Wait

A flustered correspondent writes:

I have a math PhD from a good midwestern university, good teaching experience in the past couple years where i have been a visiting assistant professor at a research university, and now i finally have a verbal tenure-track offer from one of its regional campuses (which is classified as a community college since it is a two-year open admissions institution).

The dean called me three weeks ago saying I am their "first candidate" after asking me if i am interested in the position, and after I said "yes, definitely", he said "O.K. good, well this is going to take some time but we will talk along the way..".. I also e-mailed the head of dept and he seemed to make it more clear. As I see it, I have been implied/told by the dean and the head of department that an offer letter is on the way (because they were in the process of having to justify why they did not hire a minority candidate and they hired me), but I am dying to get this letter that still fails to reach me a month and a half into the new academic year... As of now, I got no written offer. What the heck may be going on?!

More importantly, I do not know how to negotiate with the dean, particularly since the university has contracts under **collective bargaining**. I would love to have my wife offered some sort of a position within this or the main campus (she has a Masters degree in applied Econ), more than raising the lousy ~47K that they may offer me. I have never brought any of these issues up, because the first time I was verbally offered the position was three weeks ago by a phone call by the Dean (which was, by the way, after a week when I had "dean interviews" with the Associate Dean and then the Dean.. both on the same day.... the timing of which still feels bizarre to me, because i met with the Dean and the Associate Dean 6 WEEKS after I met with the Search Committee in my campus interview).

PS: What is likely to make things even more complicated for me is that I may receive an offer as a visiting Asst Prof from an excellent liberal arts college up in [another state] in a few days (I had a great campus interview and i LOVED so far how they handle each and every thing), and then would come the hassle of relocating and moving my wife and 2 year old kid for merely one year... I feel like I can't just keep that offer hanging up in the air this late in the year against a tenure-track offer from this place that NEVER ARRIVES?!

This may sound cold, but honestly, the timelines you're talking about don't shock me. I get that you're frustrated, and don't blame you at all, but I'm not shocked.

I'll start by saying that I don't know any specifics about this particular search other than what you've told me, and every case is at least potentially new and different.

That said, a couple of the more probable scenarios include:

- Uncertain funding for the position. In public higher ed right now, as I'm sure you know, budgets are all over the place. I wouldn't be surprised if you were the top choice candidate for the position, but the existence of the position is in question. If this is the case, unfortunately, there really isn't much for you to do about it, other than maintain your professionalism and make whatever choices you have to make.

- Already-slow hiring cycles slowed even more by people's vacation schedules. Most years, this isn't an issue, since full-time faculty hires don't usually occur over the summer. This year, maddeningly fluid budget scenarios have pushed some searches into the summer, simply because it took that long to be (reasonably) certain that the funding was there. It's well and good to say that the college should have adjusted, but the 12-month staff (hi!) have to take vacations sometime, and many may well have already made their commitments. It's been three weeks since you spoke to the Dean; what usually would take a week or two could take a week or two longer, just because of who is out when. Yes, colleges should plan around that to compensate, but it happens. The six-week lag between the committee interview and the deans' interviews suggests that this college usually takes its sweet time anyway; add staff vacations to that, and things could easily drag.

In terms of salary negotiation in a collective bargaining environment, the general rule is that only your starting salary has any wiggle room at all; every raise after that is contractual. At my cc, the starting salary is determined by a mechanistic points-and-grid system, in the name of fairness. That means that 'negotiation,' if it happens at all, consists of meeting with HR at your first opportunity after the offer is made, and pushing for all the points you can possibly get. Did you leave some stray adjunct classes off your cv? They may give a few more points for those. Military experience? Industry? Throw the kitchen sink at them, and see what counts. Even in systems with a less mechanistic determination of starting salaries, the general rule is that once your start point is set, the die is cast. Push hard at the outset, since they'll probably lack the flexibility to backfill later even if they wanted to. Whatever you do, don't take a low offer on the assumption that they'll make it up to you later. They won't. (Candidly, your reference to the expected offer as 'lousy' gives me pause. If you're already unsatisfied before even starting...)

In terms of a spousal offer, I wouldn't expect one at this late date. Feel free to ask, but I'd be surprised if you got anything more than an offer to let her use their career services office in her search. In tight budgetary times, it's even harder than usual -- and that's saying something -- to manufacture jobs at the drop of a hat.

The one-year position offer dangling out there complicates the picture somewhat, but it also gives you an absolutely bulletproof excuse to call the HR department and ask for an update. Let them know that you have someone else waiting on you, and they need an answer. If you present that calmly, the worst that would likely happen would be that you don't learn anything. But if that happens, you're no worse off than you are now. (If they hold even that much against you, you probably don't want to work there.)

The question of moving the family is real. Certainly discuss it with your wife; she deserves a vote here. (I've turned down job interviews based on a spousal veto of location, and have never regretted it.) Jobs come and go, but a good marriage is worth preserving. First things first.

Good luck! Yours is a good problem to have, but still difficult. I hope you can rise above the frustrations of the moment.

Wise and worldly readers, I'm sure many of you have faced similar situations. How would you play this?

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