October 20, 2017

It Can’t Hurt To Ask—or Can it? | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellWhat lessons can academic librarians take away from “W,” who negotiated for a tenure-track position thinking there’d be no harm in asking for more—but in fact it did a lot of harm?

There’s always something big happening in higher education. In just the past two weeks, significant news items include Obama’s rating system for colleges and universities, new concerns about spiraling debt taken on by graduate students, a MOOC provider hiring Yale’s former president as its CEO, national unionizing moves by adjunct faculty—and college athletes—and a college president who did something incredibly embarrassing. Well, that last one happens every other week or so. Somehow, despite all of those major news items, something seemingly insignificant captured the attention of the higher education media. What really has faculty and administrators talking is “Negotiationgate.”

Something’s Not Right

I don’t know if that’s what it’s actually being called, but that seems like the thing to do if you want to communicate to your readers that it’s the only thing that matters right now—like “Bridgegate.” Negotiationgate erupted from the sad story of a candidate for a tenure track faculty position who attempted to negotiate a job offer, only to have the college respond by rescinding the offer. That’s not supposed to happen. There’s supposed to be a negotiation. There’s no negotiation if one side gets up and leaves the table—permanently. The higher education media went into a frenzy over this story, matched only by the flood of commenters jumping into the debate. How did this happen? What went wrong? What do the experts think? How are you supposed to negotiate with jerks? The volume of content produced by this one episode makes a strong statement about a critically important issue in higher education: What do you have to do to get a tenure-track job?

Just asking

The story of W, the rejected candidate, was first shared on a blog called The Philosophy Smoker. In response to an offer from Nazareth College, assuming it was standard practice to counteroffer, W emailed a list of requests including a higher starting salary, a pretenure sabbatical, a semester of maternity leave, a limit on the number of new courses she’d be asked to teach, and a 2015 start date. She indicated that she had no expectation Nazareth could agree to all of it but asked for consideration. The response was hardly what W expected. Nazareth replied by withdrawing its original offer and wished W well. Why? Nazareth informed W that her requests would be more appropriate for a large research university. Suggesting she was out of touch with Nazareth’s small institution culture, the college removed the offer from the table. W was stunned. After all, everyone is supposed to make a counteroffer. That’s what our mentors and job advisers tell us to do. That strategy backfired horribly on W, but how could she have known it would happen? What went wrong, and who was at fault?

Everyone has an opinion

Where did W’s strategy derail? Was it something she did or how she did it? Initially, the response focused on who was to blame for what happened. Depending on your perspective, either W was at fault for submitting a completely outrageous set of demands that revealed a lack of sensibility about Nazareth’s culture and resources, or the Nazareth search committee was totally a bunch of callous jerks who were offended by a women who dared to make some bold requests. It could be either one—or perhaps a bit of each. Others debated whether W’s mistake was sending her counteroffer by email. Experts and amateurs alike commented on this, with no clear consensus on whether it’s better to stick with email or make it more personal with a phone call. Overall, there was no clear consensus about any tried-and-true approach to negotiating a job offer. If anything good came out of W’s misfortune, it was an opportunity for everyone to pay more attention to the skills required for successful job negotiation. The higher education media certainly gave the pundits a platform to share their advice.

Have a Plan

There was some consensus that Nazareth’s response was outrageous but not uncommon. Instead, the experts tended to concentrate on two problem areas: communication and culture. While many commenters pointed to W’s email as the wrong communication mode for negotiation, Karen Kelsky, an academic career coach, advised job seekers to always use email for job negotiation rather than a phone conversation. Of course, there’s an art to negotiation by email. Kelsky makes a convincing point that phone negotiations may lead to on-the-spot and poorly thought out decisions. There was more agreement that W’s counteroffer revealed she was out of touch with Nazareth’s expectations for new faculty. Another expert pointed specifically to W’s request for no more than three “preps” a year as a sign that she had no idea how that would be perceived by colleagues at a small teaching institution. That one alone may have set off the candidate “red light” warning alarms for Nazareth. If W was making these kinds of demands before she was even hired, even if implying that some might be considered nonnegotiable, what could they expect of her as a colleague?

Different for Women

While some experts took up the challenge of determining the extent to which gender was a factor in W’s case, many made clear their observation that women need to approach job negotiation, and even requests for raises and perks, differently—and more cautiously than men. If they try to negotiate aggressively, the stereotype of a strong woman as demanding and unlikable may sabotage the negotiating process. Perhaps that was part of the problem for W. Some speculated that W had other job offers waiting and simply took the advice to negotiate as if you can walk away from the deal if you don’t get what you want. For those women who do have something to lose, they need a different strategy, as described in this article.

Takeaways for Librarians

Though the prospect of having your job negotiation effort end up like it did for W, with the offer being pulled, is scary, the likelihood that it will happen is actually quite remote. This was a somewhat unique convergence of multiple factors that led to an unusual outcome, and even the experts found it difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. What they could do was offer advice so that other job applicants for higher education positions might avoid W’s outcome. I invited Naomi House, founder, publisher, and editor of the INALJ Community, a premier job information network for librarians, to share her reaction to Negotiationgate. House strongly advocates for negotiating with a potential employer but says it is important to make requests that are reasonable and what she refers to as “backed-up,” meaning supported by data. House said, “We get nowhere and change nothing, especially as women in the field, if we do not ask. The question for librarians may be to ask themselves, ‘What is reasonable?’ ” Although our profession is female-dominated, administrative decision makers in the academic library and human resources departments are often male, and that should cause female candidates to think through strategically how they will negotiate effectively. House added, “We shouldn’t be scared of asking reasonable questions. A negotiation isn’t just about perks and salary, it is about value. Being able to show your value is a necessary part of any negotiation.” That is smart advice for all librarians, whatever their gender. House also pointed me to two posts at INALJ, one about negotiation and the other about closing the deal, that can help academic librarians who need negotiating advice. For academic librarians considering a job offer, asking should never hurt their chances. What it should accomplish is a sensible discussion, by email or phone, that enables both candidate and employer to reach mutually beneficial terms—or a realization that the fit just isn’t there.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. While it’s surprising to have an institution rescind an offer completely, I do think that W completely missed the boat on the culture of the institution, and should have done more research. I say this as someone who has managed large and small academic libraries for almost 20 years, and hired many candidates, including several who have negotiated slight improvements to the offers. Many things are not negotiable at institutions. For example, at my current, state-funded large public institution, the amount of time for research leave, the teaching load and preps expected, and maternity/paternity leaves are definitely not negotiable. These are all governed by a mix of state laws and institutional bylaws, and anyone asking to change these would be considered to have not done their homework or not been listening. HR and the hiring departments make these things clear in the interviews, so an attempt to negotiate would go nowhere. Salaries are more negotiable, within guidelines, and I’ve gotten slight increases for a few candidates. However, I did have one candidate – from within the same system, no less, so she was well aware of the legally available salary ranges – who tried to insist on a salary level that would have put her $10,000 ahead of her supervisor, and more than $35,000 ahead of all new hires, including some with an additional relevant degree. I had serious second thoughts about hiring her, and was, ultimately, very glad when the situation fell through, for unrelated reasons. Her current supervisor told me she had a habit of asking for things that were simply wildly out of the realm of possibility (such as a $10,000 raise, for no particular reason, and with no alternative job offer lined up, when we were all in the midst of salary freezes and possible furloughs), and all I could see was trouble ahead. Maybe that’s what Nazareth saw. Go ahead and negotiate, but first, do your research about what is possible and what isn’t within a specific institutional setting, and ask for one or two additional considerations, all within the realm of possibility. Don’t come out with a slate of requests appropriate to a wildly different environment – especially not in a field (like philosophy, say) where there are hundreds of applicants for every opening. Or don’t be surprised if they rescind the offer.