Knowing Your Worth
Negotiation and the academic marketplace

Vol. 11 No. 1
September 2008

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Knowing Your Worth
Negotiation and the academic marketplace

Recommended reading

Why don’t we have, for the person who’s been at the institution for ten years whose equipment is all ratty, a refresher package?”

“I don’t think Emory should ever concede that it will lose people to better schools. I think it has long done that, has not tried to remain competitive, and sometimes I fear that it is still just trying to be good enough.”

Women and Negotiation
What can underpaid but committed faculty members do?

Book Review and Reflections
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels

Making Academic Writing Unpalatable
Examining violence without sensationalizing or sanitizing


A few months after Natasha Trethewey became an assistant professor of creative writing at Emory in fall 2001, a friend at the University of Connecticut urged her to consider a faculty position there. “I was really happy to have arrived at Emory, and I said I wasn’t that interested in thinking about moving so soon,” Trethewey says, “but she talked me in to just checking it out.”

Trethewey visited the campus. “I became an accidental negotiator,” she says. “I still didn’t want to go there, so when they asked me what I wanted, I decided to ask for what I thought was the moon, thinking that would solve the problem of me having to turn them down.”

To Trethewey’s surprise, Connecticut met her requests almost exactly. Ultimately she decided to remain at Emory (and in 2007 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry), but she also leveraged the offer to secure a better situation for herself here.

Accidental or not, Trethewey’s experience has become routine in the academic labor market—negotiation by counteroffer. Prevailing wisdom suggests that those who move every few years from one institution to another are better compensated, thanks to national market competition. Conversely, those who stay in one place pay what some call the “loyalty tax.” For those faculty, it seems, the best raises come by going on the market and bringing back a job offer, which triggers a counteroffer. To ensure one’s “market value,” one must play the market.

To some, subtle biases in Emory’s culture complicate the issue—especially for women and minority faculty. “For years I served on the Affirmative Action Committee [of Emory College, which reviews all faculty searches],” Trethewey says. “One day we were talking to the head of a department in which women were underrepresented. There was a woman on their short list of candidates. We asked him what the ranking was for these candidates. He said the woman was the top candidate, even though she wasn’t listed as number one. The problem was, he said, that she already teaches at a neighboring institution, and they have the same difficulties we do recruiting women and minorities, and we really didn’t want to take her away from them. And I leaned across the table and said, ‘I hope you’ll let her make that decision.’”

As Trethewey’s story illustrates, the institution bears some responsibility for recognizing the literal value of academic work. But for some, the task of getting their worth is daunting. According to Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Princeton 2003), women are less likely than men to negotiate on their first job, and when they do, they ask for less than men do. Because future raises are calculated on percentages of pay, that gap is tough to close. Combined with a slower rate of promotion for women (a recent Modern Language Association study found that on average, women spend 8.2 years at the associate level, as opposed to 6.6 years for men), the result is a discrepancy that widens over a career.

How does Emory look in that national picture? Last year, the deans of Emory’s schools and colleges evaluated compensation packages across the board to determine competitiveness across disciplines against benchmark institutions. The provost’s office issued a preliminary report that examined faculty equity in terms of various diversity characteristics. Emory fared well in comparison to other institutions (though the overall picture remains unimpressive). And although evidence of university-wide gender inequity was not overwhelming, the study did not delve into possible inequities at the department or even school and unit level.

The value and costs of the counteroffer

Does negotiating well necessitate a game of brinksmanship? The counteroffer has costs for all players, says Ajay Kohli, former Isaac Stiles Hopkins Chair in Marketing in the business school (over the summer he joined Georgia Tech’s marketing department). “There is a personal cost to the individual: not only does she or he have to go out and get an offer, it can also hurt his or her reputation in the marketplace. Should the person actually want to move to another school at a later time, a prospective school is going to say, ‘Forget that person; he or she just goes out every few years and plays the market.’ Then there is a cost to the [home] institution: it ends up rewarding select individuals, which can hurt institution-wide morale. In addition, the institution subliminally is saying that someone on the outside is more capable of judging an individual’s value.”

But the market can provide a powerful last-resort bargaining tool. “For the first time in sixteen years,” says Scott Boden, professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of the orthopaedics and spine center, “I [recently] did just that. I had tried for some time to get the attention of senior leadership on a couple of key issues that affected my constituency. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’ve accomplished a lot at Emory in terms of building systems and centers and innovative paradigms, but I’ve never had to do it by threatening anything. It is dangerous if an institution creates a model [by which] people feel the only way they’re going to get something is if they’re on the verge of leaving. It’s a one-time strategy, and if you use it, you have to be willing to leave. Once you start to go through these motions, it’s very easy to get into a situation where you can’t turn around or back up. But there’s nothing wrong with people looking at other opportunities for the right reasons—if anything, to reinforce that they feel good about their current situation.”

What might offer the same reassurance yet help keep faculty from taking that step? Associate Professor of History Leslie Harris argues that less taboo around compensation could improve the environment. “I’ve found that faculty, particularly in private institutions, shy away from speaking frankly about it,” Harris said last May at an AE-sponsored panel discussion. “The secrecy perhaps helps the deans give some of us more of what we deserve—it works against a simplistic equality in compensation. At the same time, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by not talking a little more openly about what’s possible.”

Although Emory’s salaries are not public information, that kind of transparency does exist in the Department of Emergency Medicine, according to Ada Lee and Pete Correll Professor and Department Chair Kate Heilpern: “We have a tier structure that’s very clear. If you come in with zero years of experience, you’re right out of a residency program, your compensation is x. If you have y years of experience and you’ve gotten an additional degree or did subspecialty training, your compensation is increased. And there’s a third tier if you’re doing something administrative for the department—running a residency program, for example.”

That structure isn’t perfect, however. “I have lost people who have pushed me on salary because I felt it unfair to break our model for somebody’s personal compensation needs,” Heilpern concedes.

Renewal packages?

As elusive institutional traits like “quality of life” and “climate” become as important to faculty as money, more non-salary perquisites are on the table: lab space and equipment, administrative support, spouse and partner hires, even mortgage assistance and private school tuition support. Emory has struggled to keep up with the growing demand for employee childcare—a key issue in recruitment and retention. Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology and Emory College Senior Associate Dean for Research Patricia Bauer says she’d like to see Emory institute a kind of systemic renewal package: “Nobody thinks twice about a new faculty member getting a start-up package. Why don’t we have, for the person who has been here for ten years and whose equipment is ratty, a refresher package? [It says] we recognize that you could go elsewhere and get new equipment and resources, and we are glad you are staying here.”

Last year, an ad hoc committee of faculty proposed a portable tuition benefit to help faculty and staff meet the cost of college tuition for dependent children pursuing undergraduate degrees at other institutions. According to their research, of the seventeen universities ranked higher than Emory by U.S. News & World Report, thirteen have a portable tuition benefit. “We found that people for whom the portable tuition benefit is important tend to be at the apex of their career—people we’d most want to keep,” says Professor of Law Bill Buzbee, a member of the ad hoc group. “It’s the one real outlier where Emory is way out of line with its competitive institutions and where it could overnight change its policy.”

The question remains whether Emory can afford to offer such a benefit, however. Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Mike Mandl told the Faculty Council last January that the portable tuition benefit might include hidden costs such as providing peer institutions with Emory-funded financial aid. He estimated that 50 percent of the expenditures associated with the benefit would not help the Emory constituency. Provost Earl Lewis and Mandl appointed a task force of faculty and senior administrators to study the issue further and report back in the fall.

Ultimately, Harris said at the May panel discussion, one’s academic worth is a blend of these considerations: “What is the combination of time, money, and location that will best serve my sense of myself as a scholar, a teacher, and someone who wants to make a difference in the many communities of which I am a part? Money is important in this mix . . . [yet] some of the most hurtful or draining or demoralizing issues that have occurred for me have not been around salary negotiations, but around other ways in which I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the university was not valuing the work that I do or the work of colleagues in the same or related fields. In those instances, the academic marketplace is very real to me: the marketplace of ideas, and how my institution supports some ideas over others.”—A.O.A