Thursday, March 20, 2014


Friday Fragments

I’ll get my academic blogger card revoked if I don’t say something about the rescinded job offer for the philosopher at Nazareth College, so here goes:

Sometimes, you just have to say ‘no.’  

I understand the emotional appeal of rejecting someone before she rejects you.  It’s psychologically healthy to outgrow that phase.  Yes, it’s frustrating when a candidate you’re trying to hire comes in with unrealistic requests.  But sometimes grownups have to power through the disappointment.  Here’s a phrase I’ve used in turning down unrealistic requests:

“No, sorry, I can’t do that.”

I’ll give a couple of examples from previous colleges.

In one case, a candidate asked -- during her interview -- if we’d be willing to cover her classes every October for her annual European tour.  I kept as straight a face as I could and responded that the point of hiring for the position was to cover classes during the Fall and Spring semesters.  

In another case, we were hiring for a math faculty position.  The curriculum ran from arithmetic through college algebra to calculus, but was bottom-heavy.  The candidate indicated that he mostly enjoyed teaching differential equations and linear algebra, but would be willing to go as low as Calc I once a year or so as a goodwill gesture.  The department liked him, and lobbied me to somehow resolve the contradiction.  I contacted him directly and let him know his likely schedule.  He withdrew his application.

I’ve lost some good candidates that way, but it’s a cost of doing business.  And the moment of disappointment fades when you’re able to hire someone else who is also terrific.  

Go ahead and say ‘no,’ Nazareth.  But do it like grownups.


Last Saturday I took The Boy to the Massachusetts Science Olympiad at Assumption College, in Worcester.  He competed in the “boomilever” event, in which the kids build boomilevers out of balsa wood and compete on the basis of how much weight they can hold.  He didn’t win, but he did pretty well, and he enjoyed hanging out with his friends and being goofy in the way that twelve year olds can.

It was my first time spending an entire day with a gaggle of twelve year olds since I was one.  

I was struck at how much more gender-integrated the group was than I remembered mine being.  The hormones were palpable, but everyone behaved, and some of the kids were quite funny.  (One girl, who could easily have been the daughter of Daria or Janeane Garofalo, put up drawings on the whiteboard that looked like anime, but with voice bubbles saying incredibly inappropriate things.  It was hard to maintain parental dignity while stifling laughter.)  They danced to Miley Cyrus songs and visited cruel fates upon Justin Bieber.  And they bonded fluently and easily across racial and gender divides in ways that just didn’t happen when I was twelve.

The kids are alright, America.  


Is there an effective way to explain to a dog the idea behind a chew toy?  The Dog takes them gratefully, but then wanders the house, crying, looking for a place to bury them.  We’ve even caught her trying to bury them between pillows.  At some basic level, she just doesn’t seem to grasp the concept.

I know that dogs aren’t inclined towards theory, as a general precept, but I’ve had dogs before who got the “chew toys are for chewing” thing immediately.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a trick to this?

I thought the problem with the Nazareth issue wasn't that they said no, but that they withdrew their offer when she made her requests (which as reported, were not nearly as unreasonable as European tours or only teaching upper level courses).

The suggestion has been that she lost her offer for having the temerity to make requests at all during contract negotiation. Nazareth looks evil for -that-, not for saying no to her requests.
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Yes, the retraction of the philosophy job offer by Nazareth College was unfortunate. It was certainly true that the applicant’s requests were completely unrealistic—she wanted a sizeable salary bump, more time off, an early sabbatical, etc. In addition, it was clear that she was much more research-oriented than what the largely teaching-oriented Nazareth College was seeking and could support. Nazareth probably thought that she would turn out to be a bad fit, that she would quickly become dissatisfied and bitter, and that she would probably immediately flee the coop as soon as a more attractive opening appeared at some other institution.

This episode points out a problem when sensitive negotiations are carried out strictly via e-mail. It is very easy for misunderstandings and miscommunications to propagate when the interaction is only via e-mail. Sensitive and touchy negotiations are often carried out by one of the parties initially making unrealistic and excessive demands that they know full well will probably be rejected. Then the other party says no, but makes a counter offer. Eventually, after this sort of extensive back-and-forth, the two parties eventually come to an agreement that both can live with. This sort of negotiation is difficult to carry out via e-mail. I suspect that the whole Nazareth situation could have been avoided by the candidate simply picking up the phone and talking to someone, or even going in person to the college to talk to someone face-to-face.

The difference between the Nazareth dustup and the examples you cite for better administrative behavior is that in your examples the candidate brought up the requests during the interview. You were able to courteously back away before making an offer. At Nazareth the candidate raised five rather major issues post-offer that really should have been addressed during the interview. What's more, the tone of her email suggested to me that she didn't really want the job, but might take it given some sweeteners. Perhaps she didn't intend that nasty tone, but a great many people have read it that way.

I do not fault Nazareth for their abrupt retraction of the offer. They were within their legal rights to do so, once she made a counter-offer. I suspect that the rather cold reasons for the retraction were dictated by Nazareth's lawyers, who feared that reopening negotiations might lead to a later lawsuit, and who felt the stated reasons were unassailable. They were probably correct. So Nazareth was in fact being "adult" about correcting the error they made in making the offer.

This is from David Ball's IHE essay (
Inside Higher Ed):

"Her requests, according to her own account, were: a starting salary of $65,000, an “official semester of maternity leave,” a pre-tenure sabbatical, a limit of three new course preps for the first three years, and a year’s leave to complete a postdoc."

This looks to me as if she asked for two years' leave during her pre-tenure period. That's 2 out of 6, generally. (Maybe 2.5, if she expected a full year sabbatical.) Frankly, that was a stupid request. I can't imagine R1 institutions doing that (although I could be wrong). But to ask it of a teaching-centered institution is just 40 kinds of stupid.

I'd also be interested in the knowing (a) the salary Nazareth offered and (b) typical starting salaries at comparable institutions. Again, $65 K sounds high to me, for a position at a school like Nazareth.

I might have been a little more diplomatic than Nazareth, but, as has been suggested, their lawyers might have become involved. I can see, incidentally, why the school didn't say "Our offer is a take-it-or-leave-it offer." If she took it, I suspect they feared an unhappy, unproductive faculty member who spent her time trying to leave.

And I also suspect the candidate didn't know much about what constitutes a reasonable bargaining position and an unreasonable one. (I wonder where she was getting her doctorate, and what kind of mentoring she had received.)
Ah, dogs and their squeaky toys. Ours doesn't try to bury them; she just disembowels them so they no longer squeak. Then she periodically kills them (biting, shaking) or loves on them (licking and cuddling). But if we tried to take them away from her...well...And we don't try to teach her anything (at least about the squeaky toys).
Incidentally, I want to expand a bit on what I said about the leave requests. I taught at a (Carnegie classification) comprehensive masters' institution. Our policy was no leaves during the probationary period. But there were policies for emergency (and partly-paid) family leaves. And faculty could apply for other (paid--rarely--or unpaid) leaves, but this was a competitive process. Had I been doing this, I might have said something like "This didn't come up in the interview, but what provisions do you have for (paid or unpaid) leave during the probationary period? Is there something one can apply for, and if so, what are the criteria?" But simply to say "I want up to 2 or two-and-a-half years of leave during my probationary period" would almost certainly have received, from us, the response of "Well, maybe you should look elsewhere."

I suspect that the philosophy candidate at Nazareth got bad advice from her mentor.

The mentor probably remembered the good old days, in which a graduate from a top school could write their own ticket on the academic job market, and could demand just about anything once they had a job offer in hand. And they probably told her that Nazareth had obviously liked her well enough to give her a job offer to go ahead and ask the school for a whole bunch of extras. That’s how the game was played back in the mentor’s younger days. After all, all that Nazareth could say is no, and perhaps she might be able to get *some* of her requests via negotiation.

But today, things are very different. For one, there are nowadays very, very few academic openings for philosophy degree holders, and a vast oversupply of worthy applicants, so many in fact that someone who has a degree in philosophy has just about as much chance in getting an academic job offer as they are of winning the PowerBall lottery. I am sure that Nazareth felt that the applicant should be extremely grateful to get *any* job offer at all, and for her to demand a whole fistful of extra perks was nothing less than a gross affront. It may very well be that there was no negotiation at all, and as soon as Nazareth officials showed the e-mail to their lawyers, it was concluded that the best strategy would be for Nazareth to immediately rescind the job offer.

So I guess the best strategy to follow in the current academic job market is to be thankful to get any job offer at all, and immediately grab it, no matter how lousy the prospects might seem to you. Sure beats freeway flying!


I had a good chuckle about the "good old days." Which were when, exactly? I spent a fair amount of time in the market in the 1970s (3 one-year positions before getting a t-t job) and 1980s (when I got the first t-t job and when I moved to the place from which I retired). Those were *never* the good old days for a job search.

And I had my own interesting experiences. I got offered a job once (t-t) for less than I was already making. I pointed that out, and suggested that as my qualifications were (considerably) more than they were asking, they might want to reconsider. They said no. I said, OK. That position was still open the following year.

But we probably all had interesting experiences...
Re: Nazareth and the negotiations, I'm struck by the concerns over her request for no more than 3 new preps, per year, for the first three years.

Now I admit that I don't really know the CC world because I'm at a university. Still, is it really that outrageous to ask to be limited to 9 separate, new course preparations and developments over 3 years? Presumably there would be separate repeat preps for several of the courses.

I see from the Nazareth catalog that this would limit her to teaching only just over 1/3 of the entire department's range of course offerings during her first 3 years. Is that considered too narrow a range?

Just curious...
Regarding the Nazareth job:

Has no one else noticed that this person says ze had another offer? " When I negotiated for another tenure track offer in philosophy I asked for a more than 20% increase in salary and was offered it." So take that other job! Or did ze turn that down for the post doc?

I inferred a starting salary of around $55,000 from some salary site and from the applicants statement that ze asked for less than a 20% increase above the offer. [Bad mentoring to ask for a 20% bump?] I also inferred, from a single datum on some salary site, that an Assoc Prof (presumably tenured) makes $65,000. [Salary compression, anyone?]

In the "good old days" referred to above, one could negotiate on salary because inflation was pushing all revenues and salaries up so that might be a way for the other faculty to get raises (to fight compression) and inflation would eat it up in a year or two anyway. Today, not so much.

A look at the department web site suggests that 3 new preps in the first year was one killer: The tenured faculty teach about 5 different classes on average. One teaches 4, another 6.

I figure the request for a year wait to finish a post doc was the biggest red flag: They wanted a tenure-track colleague to replace adjuncts in key classes right now, not someone trying to get a better job offer a year from now and leave them in a double lurch. (That would be three years with a vacancy after another full scale search.) Here is where the college made a HUGE mistake. They should have asked about ze's plans to leave that post doc, since it would have been on the CV as a 2-year position. "Will you be happy leaving that full-time research position for a full-time teaching load?" should have been asked.

"I had a good chuckle about the "good old days." Which were when, exactly? I spent a fair amount of time in the market in the 1970s (3 one-year positions before getting a t-t job) and 1980s (when I got the first t-t job and when I moved to the place from which I retired). Those were *never* the good old days for a job search. "

The "good old days" were the early 60's. My father, after leaving a job working as a reporter, applied to a directional U in 1961, thinking that he might get a job in PR or as a manager of a groundskeeping crew. They noticed that he had taken sociology while earning his English and PoliSci degree and hired him to teach it. They then paid for his masters, gave him tenure after that, and then, in 1967, gave him a three year leave to get a Ph.D in another state. (This was routine; several other profs with MA's went to the same school at the same time). He earned his Ph.D in 1971 and was promoted to full professor that same year.

Obviously, my own grad school experience in the late 80's was quite different.
I too remember the “good old days”. As PeterW says, these were in the early-to-mid 1960s. I suspect that most of the faculty members who initially got their tenure-track jobs during this time period are now retired, but I suppose that there are some still around. In those days, higher ed was rapidly expanding, and colleges and universities went out of their way to recruit and hire new faculty members. If you had a PhD from a name school, you could essentially write your own ticket on the job market, and once hired it was almost certain that you could gain tenure fairly soon.

I found that a lot of the faculty members who initially got their jobs during this era were insufferably arrogant. They seemed to have an enhanced sense of entitlement, believing that they were the deserving winners in some sort of Darwinist struggle for survival. I have found that there is no one more arrogant than a tenured faculty member at an R1 university.

Then in the late 1960 and early 1970s (when I first went on the academic job market with my new PhD in hand) things had changed for the worse. Higher ed had stopped expanding and was now starting to contract. Grant money dried up and got harder and harder to obtain. Academic departments, previously awash in students and grant money, suddenly found that they were “tenured-in”—they had too many tenured faculty on staff and not much room for any more. New PhDs found that academic jobs were hard to find—they had to spend year after year doing temporary post-doc gigs, trying to build up enough publications so that they could eventually land a tenure-track job somewhere. The job fairs at physics conferences began to resemble Depression-era longshoreman hiring halls. Those who couldn’t find anything eventually washed out of academe altogether, finding alternate career paths where they could. Some could not even find these, and ended up driving taxicabs or tending bars.

But most of the people I know who got their physics degrees during the late 1960 and early 1970s eventually did land tenure-track academic jobs, albeit after a couple of years of enduring temporary gigs. But only a few actually stayed in academe for the long haul. Some went into industry, some went to government labs, and one even became a venture capitalist. And some (including me) were denied tenure and were forced to seek alternate careers.

I don’t remember a lot of adjuncting going on during the early to mid 1970s, when the academic job market was almost as tight as it is now. When I taught at Research Intensive Technological Institution during this time, all of the day classes were taught by regular tenure-track faculty, with only a couple of evening classes being taught by part-timers. Our department chairman proudly boasted that we were not running a "mail-order department". But if I went back there now, I would probably find a whole bevy of part-timers teaching day classes.

As you note, Millenials and their kids are gonna destroy conservatism. That's a big part of the Teabagger panic; they're trying to destroy the country before it has a chance to change.

They may succeed.

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