This is a repost of an old Chronicle Vitae piece that has been de-activated. All the advice remains relevant in 2021.
Question: I received a tenure-track offer that I’m unsure about taking. I went to my dean and asked if the university would match the salary or at least meet me halfway. The dean said there was nothing they could do. I’ve heard people in the Chronicle’s forums say that you can’t stay after that because you will have no bargaining power in the future.
I want to leave but my gut tells me that the offer I have might not be the best, and I keep thinking that maybe next year I’ll get a better offer. I know that’s unlikely but I keep thinking it. The only minus of the offer is the university’s location. It’s good but isolated. What should I do? And if I decide to stay, how do I tell my dean that I’m fine with not getting a raise?
Answer: I wanted to weigh in on this question, even though it did not come directly to me, because there is a lot of confusion about offers and counteroffers. In the forums, many of the responses expressed surprise that the dean had not come forth with a counteroffer.
Before I proceed, let me take this opportunity to correct a widespread misunderstanding about the use of the word “counteroffer.” That term applies to the situation we are discussing here: When currently employed faculty members receive an outside offer, and take it to their home institution to seek a retention offer, that retention offer is called a “counteroffer.”
Counteroffer does NOT refer to the set of asks you make in a negotiation with an institution! For those of you not currently employed on the tenure track: When you receive your first tenure-track offer, and respond to that offer with a set of requests, your set of requests is not a counteroffer, and when they respond with an adjusted offer to you, that, too, is not a counteroffer. This is just an issue of semantics, and will not affect your negotiating outcomes, but I want Ph.D. job seekers to better grasp the terminology of the academic career.
Anyway, it is not surprising that the dean did not provide a counteroffer. In the financial freefall that characterizes the academy at this point in time, many institutions have a no-counteroffer policy, or a counteroffer-only-for-superstars-but-not-for-assistant-professors policy. Years back, when I was an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, that was indeed the unspoken but widely understood policy. I once got an offer and decided to test the policy by going to my dean seeking a counteroffer and was told, “Congrats on your offer! Of course we hope you’ll stay but we will understand if you decide to go.”
Nobody at the junior level should be startled by the lack of a counteroffer. Of course you should always ask. You may well get one. It may be very robust, matching or exceeding what you got from the external offer, or it may be just a token of goodwill. You can also seek to negotiate, within limits. A small public R2 will not be able to match the offer of an elite R1, for example, so don’t expect that. Ultimately, however, you’ll have to judge for yourself what you need to be able to stay. But if you do seek a counteroffer, make sure you really are considering staying. It takes a lot of time, effort, and capital for a department head to wrangle a counteroffer from the dean, so don’t waste his or her efforts for no reason.
Now on to the main theme of the question: Have you lost leverage?
That’s hard to say, definitively. First of all, you will move forward in your career, so that if you come back in a few years’ time — perhaps tenured at that point — you may be perceived as someone more worthy of retaining than you are now (especially if you are currently a very new hire).
The passage of time also changes the players: In a few years, you may be dealing with a different department head and/or dean. Counteroffers may be bounded by policy but they are also deeply influenced by the personality and propensities of individuals. Some deans can be rigid, judgmental, and resentful, and feel the desire to repudiate a junior faculty member who seems “disloyal” by having gotten an external offer. Other deans can be friendly, savvy, and flexible, and appreciate and want to reward the talent of an assistant professor who secured an external offer. You don’t know what you’re dealing with until you try, although it’s wise for anyone currently employed on the tenure track to do some solid detective work to find out well in advance how their department head and dean tend to respond on these matters.
In any case, if you come back in a year or two — under a new dean — then you’ve probably lost little or no leverage in the process.
Even if you are working with the same dean, however, it may be that the funding model and/or policies of the college or the whole campus have shifted. Money flows in various directions according to the whims and aims of higher administration. The new strategic plan that comes out next year may well reflect the new president’s desire to aggressively retain the most active faculty. There is suddenly a budget dedicated to that goal that didn’t exist before. The deans have just come out of a series of meetings dictating the new policy. You are now — through nothing but the exigencies of timing — able to get a counteroffer where you could not in previous years (assuming you fall in the category of faculty who are worthy of retaining).
But the point is, right now, you can’t anticipate any such changes. Therefore, I would not say that you have definitively lost leverage by rejecting the external offer. You may get a better external offer next year — or not. You can’t know.
You should therefore make the choice that is best — professionally and personally — for you now. You would say to the dean something like, “Thank you for considering my request. I understand the finances of the university prevent you from making a counteroffer. I’ve carefully weighed my options and decided that the resources and academic community I enjoy here are valuable to me, and would not be matched at the new institution, so I am happy to say that I’ll stay here at X.”
I would not advise you to wait for a better offer, however, when the current one has all the appeal you indicate. In the current moment — outside of the repellent academic-superstar system where celebrity faculty are traded among the Ivies for absurd sums of money — tenure-track offers are as hard to get as Olympic gold medals. I’d grab this opportunity if it advances your goals.
Want more advice from Karen Kelsky? Browse The Professor Is In archives.
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