When Is a Job Offer Really a Job Offer in Academia?
It may sound like a silly question. Or maybe it sounds like a question on the final exam of some first-year law student’s Contracts course –often another forum for silliness. But it’s not so silly when you receive a phone call, email or letter from some departmental, college or university official asking you to move across the country or across the world to take a new job. And it’s not so silly when you are on the other end of that transaction doing the asking –some might say wooing— to get a would-be colleague to move across the country or world.
Offers and acceptances are part of everyday life, so we tend to think that we know them when hear, read one and or write them. But it might be a little more complicated when it comes to a job-offer, especially when the job is for a senior faculty position with tenure. And some of the complications have, I think, substantial ethical dimensions. Even if the job-offer doesn’t include tenure, there are some less-than-obvious process issues worth thinking about so that academics on both sides of the prospective transaction do the right thing. So let me start the new calendar year with my own take on some ethical issues associated with job-offers in academia: what they should include; how they should be conveyed; what contingencies might render a “job offer” moot; and how to respond to contingent and non-contingent offers so that you are fair to both your current and prospective future institution.
‘Tis the (Challenging) Season of Offering
In many parts of the world, December marks the season of giving, but in the academic world, January-April is the season of offering. My department is hiring this year. Candidate visits start at the end of January and will run into February with the hope that an offer can be made and accepted by sometime at the end of February, but more realistically by sometime in March or early April.
At least two trends have made the art of wooing newly-minted PhDs, junior faculty and senior faculty more challenging of late. Here is one trend. The supply of new PhDs, which was never that large to begin with, has recently shrunk. According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (“AACSB”), one of the principal accrediting institutions of our industry, there were about 2,000 business PhDs produced in 2010. That’s 10-20% down from a decade earlier. PhD programs are apparently not so easy to maintain, let alone expand, particularly when local economies go into recession and universities start cutting in response. When I started my PhD program at the University of Minnesota’s in early 1990s, there were six other students starting with me in the same department. Now, my department takes in only two to three students each year.
So supply is down, but demand for PhDs is up. That’s the other trend. Again, the AACSB estimates that there are about 14,000 business schools around the world. Though most are still found in North America and Western Europe, growth in new institutions is in the developing world, where they are scrambling to find business PhDs with the promise if not proven track-records of publishing research in respected peer-reviewed academic journals. There’s also something of a scramble –well, maybe an amble– in North American and Western Europe. If a 2011 Wall Street Journal article has it right, then the driving force here is demographic. Waves of faculty hiring in the 1970s and 1980s are giving way to waves of faculty retirements in the 2000s and 2010s. Even with a rise in full-time teaching faculty, part-time faculty, the AACSB tells us that the typical business school is still from 60-70% composed of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors. Some move on each year to other institutions or careers. Increasingly though, they simply “move” from active to emeritus status. In either case, there are pressures to search out, interview and offer faculty positions to new PhDs, as well as junior and senior faculty at other institutions to fill ranks and expand into new areas of teaching and research.
The Offer: What, Which and How?
So the search committee has done its work, and the candidate has come and wowed the faculty with cutting-edge research, teaching evaluations and engaging banter in office visits. The department wants to make her an offer. Let’s keep it simple and limit this to either an offer with tenure to a senior faculty member at another institution or a tenure-track term offer to a newly-minted PhD or junior faculty member at another institution. At least three questions then come to mind: What kind of offer to make; which terms to include in that offer; and how to convey that offer. By “what” question, I mean whether to make an offer with or without tenure. This distinction is important, vitally important for what the “offer” really is. If the decision is to make an offer without tenure –a tenure-track offer—then the process is straightforward for the department and or college to complete with the university playing little or no role in the whole process.
But if the “offer” is made with tenure, then it gets complicated. The complication is that the “offer” is typically then only a contingent offer that is moot until all of the departmental, college- and university-level reviews and votes are completed. That process can take weeks or months to complete. Until then, the candidate probably does not have a real offer to respond to, just a contingent intent to make an offer. I say “probably” because some offers do include the alternative of a non-tenure appointment if the tenure review process stalls out or results in tenure denial. But let me get back to situations in a moment.
Let me next deal with the which and how questions. By “which” terms I mean articulating offer terms such as the candidate’s salary and related benefits, teaching loads, and some articulation of research and service expectations. All of the terms of the candidate’s offer don’t need to be spelled out (though some candidates will press for more detail), just the “material” terms. The material terms are the ones that, if changed, could also change the candidate’s mind from accept to decline, from yes to no. Such terms include: title, appointment date and length (with or without tenure), base salary, departmental assignment and teaching load, recurring and non-recurring expense reimbursement terms related to moving and the like. I’m including with this blog entry directions to a web location where you can review some offer letter templates. I don’t mean for my list of material terms or this set of templates to be the final word, but I think my list and these templates are representative of current practice and expectation.
Then there is the “how” question. I find it remarkable when I hear that an “offer” was made over the phone or face-to-face with some expectation of immediate response from the candidate. I think it was the movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn, who once remarked that “[a]n oral contract is as good as the paper it’s written on.” I find it nearly as remarkable when I hear that an offer is made through a series of messages sent via email, not in a single letter. The candidate is being asked to pull up stakes and move herself and perhaps her family across miles, countries, maybe even continents. In this context, there has got to be a way to handle the what, which and how questions that is fair to her and to others involved in this wooing process.
Some Ethics of Offer Fairness
I said I would get back to that contingent offer issue for tenured offers. Let me do that now by repeating an earlier point. Until the tenure review process is completed successfully, there is no tenured offer on the table for the candidate to consider. Nothing. The tenured faculty “offer” is not an offer. It is a contingent offer where the contingency will not be resolved for weeks or months. In this context, I think it unfair to ask the candidate to “accept” a non-offer. Yet, letters from the department or college or university often include such requests. The sample letter templates noted earlier include this sort of language. Most institutions do this.
Needless to say, I think it unwise for any candidate to sign and return such an acceptance request. Doing so is tantamount to accepting an offer to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. Business schools intending (but not yet in a position) to make a tenured offer to a candidate should not ask the candidate commit to accepting an offer before the offer is really there. It is wrong. It should stop. I’m less incensed when the letter includes an alternative non-tenured offer that can be accepted while the tenure case is being processed. At least there is now an offer to consider. But candidates looking for a tenured offer are unlikely to accept this alternative, even as a short-term back up. If the application for tenure stalls out, then the candidate is much more likely to stay put at their current institution. Much better to leave out requests to accept an offer before it is perfected. Much better to call the letter something other than an offer letter. It isn’t. It is, at best, a contingent offer letter.
Once contingencies like tenure review and approval are cleared away and there is a real offer on the table, then the candidate has an obligation to respond in a timely manner: accept, accept with the following changes in terms, decline (gracefully). As with non-tenured offers, the wooing institution may have an offer expiration date, an “exploding” offer. I have no problem with exploding offers as long as they give the candidate a reasonable time-period to consider and respond to the offer.
While we are on the subject of letters, let me suggest to universities and candidates that the only way to convey an offer or contingent offer is in a letter. I have no problem telling a candidate face to face or over the phone or in an email that an offer (or contingent offer) is likely to be made. But it is better to have it all written out in a letter on departmental, college and university letterhead from an authorized representative like the department head or academic dean. Taking the time to do this gives the wooing institution and the candidate an easily-identifiable, common document to use in discussing and negotiating material terms. It also makes things easier for the candidate’s current institution. Once an offer (or contingent offer) letter is generated, the candidate can share it with her current institution, typically by giving a copy to her current department head. I don’t think she has an obligation to share this letter, but I think it wise for her to do so. Most importantly, sharing that letter gives the department head an opportunity to respond perhaps with a counter-offer. Also importantly, sharing that letter lets the department head plan the next semester’s teaching and service schedule with some notice of the candidate’s intended departure. Sharing the letter does not mean that the candidate is leaving. It certainly does not amount to the candidate’s letter of resignation. It is a matter of courtesy. It is also a matter of credibility because the letter spells out in writing what the prospective institution is offering (with or without contingencies) the candidate. This sort of clarity helps all parties reach the right decision in the end.
So When Is a Job-Offer Really a Job-Offer in Academia?
I said it wasn’t so simple to identify and act on a job offer. Here are seven take-aways I think will make the process a bit less complicated and maybe less silly: 1) be aware that many offers simply aren’t –they are contingent offers with sometimes substantial contingencies like tenure review and approval; 2) such contingent job offers should be admitted up front to the candidate, preferably in a letter; 3) such contingent job offers should not include language seeking the immediate acceptance of terms from the candidate –generally, there is nothing yet to accept; 4) offer or contingent offers should be made through letters on institutional letterhead from authorized representatives; 5) those letters should summarize all of the material terms; 6) once received, candidates can and probably should share such letters with the department head of their current institution; and 7) once contingencies are dealt with, candidates have an obligation to respond to an offer in a timely manner.
Good luck to all candidates looking for a job and to all institutions looking for a candidate. Let the wooing begin.
Please address your comments to:
Paul M. Vaaler
Department of Strategic Management
Carlson School of Management
University of Minnesota
321 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Tel (612) 625-4951
Fax (612) 626-1316