When first offered a tenure-track position, I was a doctoral student with no experience in contract negotiations. Fast forward two decades, and now I am the other partner in the dyad: the dean who extends and negotiates hiring contracts.
So I could empathize with both parties in the recent, virally-famous “W vs. Nazareth” controversy—although as with many academic-hiring incidents in which people have taken strong stances, we know very few facts. We just have two emails—“W’s” requests for start-up aid and the “never mind” response from Nazareth—and also some subsequent comments from W.
The thousands weighing in have expressed opinions ranging from “She was being peremptory and unrealistic and demonstrated she wasn’t the right fit for a small liberal arts college” to “Nazareth was too quick to pull the plug and should have worked with her. They were being unreasonable and sexist.”
My view is that we should step back from the who-wronged-whom debate and ask a broader question: What is the point of negotiating at all?
I advocate minimal negotiations in the first place. And I speak from experience. When I got my first job offer, I responded a few days later with “requests” that made the German demands on Belgium before World War I look conciliatory and gentle. Many acquaintances had made suggestions on “what you should ask for.” I logged them all, four pages’ worth.
None of the entreaties was out of line, in and of itself. But presented en masse, the list were ridiculous and off-putting. Fortunately, my future employer, the dean of the school, replied simply: “We have one hiring deal for all new assistant professors.” And that was it. I took the deal.
I now practice an amended version of “one price” hiring today. We want to hire the best people for our open positions. So each year when we plan hiring lines, I calculate the best possible deal within our current budget for each line. Furthermore, I discuss the package in depth with finalists for the position so they know what to expect before I make the offer call.
Many institutions and disciplines (but not all) should perhaps consider a flexible version of the “no negotiation” method. Here’s why:
It wards off envy or jealousy between new faculty members on “who got a better deal.” Nothing is more disheartening than finding out somebody hired at the same time as you, for the same kind of position, was able to wrangle more money.
Knowing what the deal is going to be before being offered the position eliminates most negotiation-induced angst. No more late-night sweats, no more fears about either being a “frier” (slang for “sucker”) negotiator or scaring off a prospective employer by being overly demanding.
It is transparent for candidates. They have time to consider if the deal works for them before they get an offer, and they can withdraw if they know they can’t live with (or on) it.
It is transparent for all other faculty. Everybody knows this is what we offer this year, and nobody is wondering about “special deals” or “favoritism.”
Non-negotiated packages also avoid misunderstandings like those of l’affaire Nazareth. The candidates have no illusions about what to ask for (or even what tone to strike in asking for them). Questions can be asked up front during the campus visit process. Candidates can also bring up special considerations that the administrator offering the job may not have thought of.
Avoiding negotiation circumvents post-contract remorse, second guessing, resentment, and feelings of disappointment for new hires who discover that they didn’t haggle well enough.
But here’s what I like most about minimal negotiations: Many faculty members, chairs, and deans have told me about acrimonious hiring negotiations that ended up ruining future relationships. Simplifying the hiring process starts the new faculty member and the hiring administrator on a positive road of mutual trust. I certainly don’t want new members of our family to begin their relationship with me on an adversarial note—which negotiations often strike, especially if one side “wins.”
Nothing is simple in academic hiring. Even in my system, I leave wiggle room and flexibility. Potential new hires may have varying research or technology needs. Issues like pregnancy or spousal hiring may necessitate tailoring offers to different personal circumstances. In some disciplines—like, say, physics—the start-up research packages may diverge widely. (In philosophy, maybe less so.) And once you go beyond tenure-track assistant professor hires to tenured hiring lines or positions with administrative responsibilities, the complexities and codicils mount up.
Nevertheless, a little budget prep, planning, and candid conversations up front within an atmosphere of trust can go a long way to start new hires not only with the support they need to succeed, but also with a positive spirit. So why don’t we keep academic hiring negotiations to a minimum and spare everyone the pain of the process?