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.