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The Contract Minefield

Written by: David D. Perlmutter
Published on: Mar 14, 2016

In 1969, the University of Pennsylvania offered my father a tenure-track position in its business school. Here’s how he described his “job hunt": Several Penn professors who had read his work gave their chair and dean a paper my father had just published. They created a position and hired my father by telephone. He showed up to work that fall after signing a brief contract.

Academic hiring today is much more complicated, with many more stages, hurdles, and players involved. A staff member in my college who tracks our hiring found that we now navigate through almost 60 steps before someone is truly, officially hired for a tenure-track position.

In the hands of ethical, competent, responsible people, the modern system should be fairer than the old-boy network of yesteryear. Yet — as anybody who has taken the red pill in today’s academic job market knows — the “what could go wrong” aspects you may face as a candidate are legion. So far in this series on the unpleasant aspects of job hunting, we have surveyed fake searchesbad fitsinappropriate questionsscheduling challenges, and interview snafus.

But the search is not over until it’s really over. Even if you get a job offer you have not fully emerged from the minefield of possible blunders and betrayals. The offer you receive may be a poor one that will advance neither your research nor your teaching. It may be so ineptly written that problems will ensue about its interpretation years down the road. There are even cases where department chairs, deans, or faculty factions disagreed so strongly with the majority choice of job candidate that they poison-pilled the offer in order to declare a failed search and move on to the next candidate, the one they really wanted in the first place.

Those are extremes. More often, in making job offers, writing appointment letters or contracts, and negotiating terms, even administrators with good will do not necessarily: (a) have any particular experience or expertise in negotiations or contracts; (b) know all the important details to be specified or even remembered; or (c) dedicate their full time and attention to your hire. In addition, the process is indisputably complicated. Recently, in hiring an assistant professor, I embarrassed myself by having to create three successive new versions of the appointment letter because I kept noticing minor errors.

So when you receive a job offer, you have to be just as thoughtful and tactical as you were when seeking the position in the first place.

Keep it positive and polite. If you receive an offer for a tenure-track position, Rule No. 1 is to be cheery and gracious no matter what you think about the department, the position, or the terms. You are building your reputation as a professional, not just dealing with a momentary dyad of negotiation.

If you do accept the position you are beginning what may well be a career-long relationship, so why not start off in good spirits? Too-vigorous negotiations, or a surly attitude, can leave a sour taste that will hurt you in the job itself. Part of your thinking should be the humbling fact you are on the cusp of achieving a dream — tenure-track employment — that every year falls out of the reach of thousands.

Being courteous and upbeat is also a good tactic. The administrator (dean or chair) who called you to make the offer is very likely under pressure and even some strain. Many chairs today are rightly concerned that a failed search might result in no hire at all. Indeed, I worked at one university that told its chairs, “You either hire your No. 1 candidate or we pull the position.” It can be heady to convert from hand-wringing job seeker to catbird-seat reclining power player but, for the sake of your honor and your future, don’t abuse the privilege of an offer.

Take time to study the details. Now, being polite and upbeat doesn’t mean agreeing immediately to a tenure-track offer, even if that is the initial instinct of many first-time academic job seekers. In receiving an offer, you should also understand that a new process — not a culmination — has been triggered. There are many considerations to mull over, such as salary, moving allowance, and technology set-up. But the focus of these columns is how to avoid problems, so take a breath and learn the details about what exactly you are being offered.

When the call comes offering you a position, your script should be something like the following: “Well, this is very exciting! I’d like to write down all the details, consider them, and get back to you as soon as I can if I have any questions. I also, of course, would like to consult my adviser and my family.” The details of the offer should include fairly exact numbers for salary, benefits, and each item of your start-up package.

What could go wrong? One valid reason to be a little suspicious is when you see vagueness in the contract language. An appointment letter or contract should never leave to future consideration “hard” items like salary, lab set-up, or moving allowance. On the other hand, administrators might be somewhat loose on numbers because they realize that you may try to negotiate for something more. They don’t want to leave the impression that they are absolutely locked in and risk losing you over a few thousand dollars.

Keep it confidential. As dean, I make the hiring calls in my college and write the appointment letters. I always caution our new recruits: “Please don’t announce this on Facebook yet.” In this age of total, moment-by-moment disclosure of relationship status and what you are having for lunch it is best to limit news of the offer at this point to your advisers and family.

Why? Well, in terms of tactics, if you turn me down, I want to offer the job to another candidate and I don’t want that negotiation spoiled by someone thinking they were second choice (even if they were, they don’t need to know that). Second, at many if not most universities an offer is not legally final until it has been processed and approved by the central administration and human-resources department. At our university, even after a signed appointment letter is submitted, the official approval takes a few weeks. Then and only then can I make a public announcement.

Of course even with an announcement of a hire a legal addendum must be featured below the candidate’s bio: “Hire contingent upon completion of doctoral degree by [date] and an approved background check.”

Seek intel about the limits and possibilities of the offer. Negotiations about hiring appointments are often fraught with tension because each side may not know exactly what the other wants and is capable of giving or giving up. That’s why I try in my own negotiations to offer what I feel is the best possible deal of which we are capable.

But in many cases, uncertainty abounds. The chair or dean may have certain conditions that are nonnegotiable — for example, that you “report for duty” on a specific date, that you have a completed Ph.D. in hand, or that you agree to teach certain classes. In my college’s appointment letters for assistant professors, we have a relatively new codicil asking that they apply as at least co-primary investigator for one external grant project worth more than $100,000 within the first three years.

On the other side of the table, there are probably hundreds of different perquisites that you might ask for, depending on your field or area of specialization. In my discipline, the list of potential items in your start-up package might be half a page; in high-energy physics it might be a dozen single-spaced pages. At a major research university, the total expenditure on a start-up package for an assistant professor of French literature might be a few thousand dollars, while for an assistant professor of biochemistry it may shoot into the millions. You should of course be seeking the best possible advice on what to ask for.

Don’t hold out for the impossible. There is no point in demanding something they cannot give. That is why you need to obtain reasonable intel, and read the room. The chair or dean might simply tell you, “Here are some things we can do for you, but let me be candid up front in that we cannot do these other things.” During your campus visit, it would also have been perfectly reasonable for you to chat about start-up packages with some of the department’s recently hired assistant professors. You can even do a little research and check out the start-up packages at peer institutions.

At the same time, people can tell you a lot by their tone as much as by their words. A friend of mine at a research university in the Northeast described getting into a bidding war with several other department chairs for a top young researcher. He admitted, “I know I must have sounded desperate on the phone to him, but my dean and the whole faculty were saying that we must get this guy.”

Alternately, if your ever-growing list of demands is received with a more testy and curt response each time, you are probably getting closer to “Look, this is not working out; never mind” territory.

Consider the point of view of administrators:

  • Resources — to support your salary, moving allowance, or technology — are finite.
  • Enthusiasm for a new hire is a relative quantity that can decrease when it feels as though the candidate is trying to squeeze the department dry.
  • The morale and opinions of the rest of the faculty must be taken into account. If your start-up package is well above what everyone else got, they will find out about it.

In fact, that last point is a real governor on job offers. A dean or chair does not want to demoralize or anger senior scholars, or even junior ones, who might be outraged at the lavishness of the new arrival’s start-up package.

So administrators can’t give you everything you may want. That is why you must listen to tone and words, and read between the lines of all conversations and correspondence. Sometimes, a statement of “I don’t think we can go higher than that” may mean there is still some flexibility, and the chair or dean might even be pushing to get you a bit more. At other times, the same words are a clear warning klaxon: “Push any harder, kiddo, and this will be our last phone call.”

Of course, if all they have to offer is truly not enough for you, and you have other prospects, feel free to walk away. The decision to terminate the negotiations — and what to do if you are blessed enough to have multiple offers or are waiting on another department — will be the subject of the next essay in this series.

Contract negotiations for an academic job hire are not a mere formality. They have become more tense and high stakes than I can ever recall in the 20 years since I was first hired on the tenure track. As job prospects for the tenure track diminish in some fields, hiring just the right person at the right price has become an imperative for many beleaguered departments worried that a failed search will lose them a faculty position. That is why the process must be treated by both sides as if they were both on the same side. After all, what you want as a candidate is to be welcomed into a new community where you are valued, respected, and rewarded. A good contract and a good relationship are not mutually exclusive.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the Admin 101 column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.