Negotiation Tips for New Chairs

Written by: Elizabeth Simmons

Primary Source: Mend the Gap

In a previous column I addressed the issues facing candidates who are negotiating their first faculty positions. The recent controversy over a job offer that was retracted when the candidate attempted to negotiate reminded me that the person sitting on the administrator’s side of the table may also be new to the process.

This article advises new administrators on handling their first negotiations with job candidates.

My experiences in hiring several dozen new faculty members over the last decade have underlined the importance of maintaining perspective.

You are making an offer to this individual because you and the faculty in your department or college have determined, by rigorously examining portfolios and conducting interviews, that this person is an excellent fit for your program. He or she has the ability to enrich your educational programs, inspire your students, and improve the scholarly impact of your research endeavors. It would be wonderful if this person accepted the offer.

At the same time, you are responsible for upholding the academic, fiscal and operational integrity of your department or college. These affect the unit’s long-term success more than the presence of any single individual.

Balancing these two considerations is key. The first should prompt you to take the candidate’s queries seriously during negotiations and to answer them with professional acumen and courtesy. The second may constrain your ability to provide what the candidate is asking for.

If you are working with a first-time faculty candidate, understand that any apparent errors or infelicities in her requests are likely attributable to inexperience. Your interviewing process has already established that she is qualified for the position and interested in the institution. Taking a poorly posed question as decisive evidence to the contrary may well be a serious overreaction.

Instead, use that question as a teachable moment. If the candidate responds well to the feedback, you may be able to move ahead smoothly with the discussion. If not, you have significant new data for gauging her fit and degree of interest.

Bear in mind that your responses to his questions are your first chance to prepare him for life at your institution and impart some of the nuances of local academic culture. Moreover, this is a chance to show him and his network of colleagues how professionally your institution handles the hiring process.

When negotiating from the administrator’s side of the table, listen closely, model professionalism, uphold institutional integrity, and take advantage of teachable moments.

My experiences have also demonstrated that maintaining self-awareness is important for keeping the process on track. While some conversations roll along smoothly, others may prove perplexing and require you to monitor your reactions.

As a chair or dean, you are expected to quickly answer a complex series of questions from someone with little prior knowledge about what is reasonable to expect. Believing that your expressed interest in hiring her confers leverage during the negotiation, she may come across as entitled. Certain of her questions may strike you as lying somewhere between naïve and ludicrous. Others may be phrased in ways that “push your buttons,” especially those arriving by e-mail (a notoriously bad medium for delicate communications). All of this is understandably frustrating. So try to set your emotional response to one side, parse the sources of the frustration, and determine how to deal with those sources appropriately.

If the tone of the requests is what bothers you, remember that most candidates are not intending to be rude. They are addressing questions about an unfamiliar situation to a stranger with tremendous power over their future.  Try to focus on the substance of the requests while phrasing your replies in a way that models professional discourse.

If the candidate does not appear to be listening to your answers, tell him so. For instance, “I believe that I addressed that in my last email and explained that I cannot make an exception to the rules. Was something unclear?” This should elicit either a new relevant question or an acknowledgment that the issue is closed. If not, note the possible red flag and move to a new topic. When you have addressed the substantive questions on the table, it is time to restate the details of the final offer and give a deadline for the response.

Believing that your expressed interest in hiring her confers leverage during the negotiation, she may come across as entitled. Certain of her questions may strike you as lying somewhere between naïve and ludicrous.

If the content of the request seems off base, treat this as an opportunity to prepare the candidate for faculty life at your institution (more on this shortly). But first double-check to make sure you are not confusing content with tone, especially if you were caught off-guard by the question. All of us carry preconceptions about how candidates from a given discipline, ethnicity, or gender should behave; I have found that asking myself how I would react if someone else had asked the same question can help me distinguish content from tone more accurately.

When content is truly at issue, here are some ideas on addressing common topics:


A first-time candidate may ask for the salary offer to be significantly increased, often citing a national data set about average salaries in his or her discipline. This can feel combative because it appears to imply that you either are unaware of national salary norms or are trying to deliberately lowball the offer. However, it is unlikely that the candidate intended either inference to be drawn.

Instead, it is more probable that this person has never negotiated salary before, does not know the salary scale at your institution, and does not understand the limitations of that national data set. Moreover, she might be getting advice about salary ranges and negotiation tactics from advisers at her graduate university, which may have entirely different constraints and practices.

So explain the rules that apply at your institution. Perhaps salary is not negotiable due to collective bargaining agreements, a fixed scale used within an entire system, or rigid links between salary and years in service. Or if your college does allow flexibility in starting salaries, then budget or equity concerns may still constrain your options. As needed, you might also comment on how the methods the national data set uses to computes its averages (perhaps across many years in rank or types of institution) limit its applicability to setting a starting salary at a given college.


Sometimes a candidate seeks a modification of benefits, perhaps mentioning practices at another institution as the basis for the query. Requests for special consideration in this area can be irritating because you are keenly aware that you lack the authority to make individual arrangements about retirement plans, health care eligibility, parental leave, visas, or moving expenses. Denying the request outright may also feel uncomfortable, especially if the candidate cares deeply about the topic.

Try to remember that a new faculty member may not know that some matters related to taxes or immigration are not up for negotiation at any institution, because they are covered by IRS regulations, INS policy, or federal law.  Nor may he realize that issues where the institution has some discretion, such as the provision of parental leave beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act minimum, are still likely to be covered by institutionwide policy and not be open to modification by individual chairs or deans.

Explain the distinctions and provide the candidate with links to your institution’s HR website, so he can investigate this more thoroughly on his own.

Teaching Conditions

At the other extreme, a candidate may ask for a change in teaching responsibilities, items that may be perceived as entirely under your control. Examples include release time to undertake curricular development or off-campus research, guarantees of assignment to particular courses and time slots, or a cap on the number of new course preparations in a given year.

These requests may appear simple from the candidate’s perspective, but a chair or dean knows they are intimately tied to a core academic value: exactly how central is teaching to the unit’s mission? Asking for too much absence from the classroom may make a candidate seem uninterested in the main unifying element of a teaching-focused or interdisciplinary department. Moreover, these requests also impact the entire unit’s budget, curriculum and staffing plans.

Take this as a chance to provide some perspective. You may wish to reiterate the place of teaching within the unit’s culture – and its practical consequences, such as an expectation that one teach a certain number of courses before undergoing reappointment or tenure review. A new faculty member may not appreciate that if she will be reviewed in fall of year three, it can be in her best interest to teach throughout the first two years in order to allow herself several cycles of experimentation, feedback, and improvement.

However, to the extent that you have some discretion, it is worth probing the reasoning behind the candidate’s requests to determine which should be met, which may be modified to be attainable, and which are outside the realm of possibility. For instance, a request for teaching release can stem from many different motives: Is the person trying to reserve time for non-teaching activities or trying to ensure that he can help with an ongoing curriculum reform?

A request to teach at a particular time of day may mask a disability-related issue that will need sensitive handling consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A request to teach a particular topic may reflect a desire to attract students as research assistants. Whether or not you grant what is asked, understanding the underlying issues will help you give the candidate sound advice for the future.

Research Conditions

Since faculty at many kinds of institutions are increasingly expected to maintain research involvement, especially with the goal of giving students experience in scholarship, candidates are likely to ask about what support they can expect to receive for starting their scholarly programs. Their requests will probably be influenced by external advice from prospective colleagues who hope to access renovated space or new equipment and graduate advisors at a distant (and potentially dissimilar) institution. In addition, some candidates may assume that one-time money in support of scholarship will be easier for your institution to supply than a recurring commitment to a higher salary. So do not be surprised if the initial request exceeds your resources.

You will almost certainly need to provide the candidate with information about what is customary and possible at your institution in terms of space, start-up funds, research assistants, and support for conference travel, book subvention or computers.  Distinguishing between one-time support given to a new hire and annual departmental funds for which anyone may apply will be helpful. Try to paint a clear enough picture so that the candidate can envision how his research program would be configured within the space and funds available and with the expected degree of student involvement.

Again, taking time to understand why the candidate is seeking particular kinds of support for scholarship may suggest creative ways to achieve some of his underlying goals. Your institution may have mechanisms for providing research assistance (or for helping faculty obtain external funds) that the candidate has not previously encountered but could readily adopt.

This is also a golden opportunity for clarifying the link between the research expectations of the faculty position, the available internal research support, and any requirement to obtain external research grants. Think of it as a means of imparting a sense of the unit’s scholarly culture: Does scholarship revolve around classroom practice? Is there a collaborative ethos where faculty pool resources to acquire multipurpose computers and equipment?  Whatever the case, a concrete discussion about how culture, expectations, and dollars intersect can set a new faculty member on the right path.

Delayed Start

When a candidate requests a delayed start date, it may instill a mild sense of panic. After all, you are undertaking the search precisely because you need to fill a gap in your teaching or research programs at the earliest opportunity!

Here, again, is a situation where probing the reasons and taking time to reflect may be helpful. If the candidate will use the time to build skills that will contribute directly to her later success on your faculty, finding a way to accommodate this short-term absence may be a good investment. The candidate pool for the search that found this candidate may even be a source of one-year replacement instructors.

However, if failing to fill the open position immediately will result in losing the opportunity to hire, then that is another matter entirely. A priori, the candidate has no way of knowing whether this is the case and no reason not to ask you about the possibility of a delay. But if you cannot provide a delay, it is reasonable for you to ask the candidate to simply decide whether to accept the original start date.

To summarize: When negotiating from the administrator’s side of the table, listen closely, model professionalism, uphold institutional integrity, and take advantage of teachable moments. Showing that you have taken the candidate’s questions seriously and understood the underlying concerns is important – even if you are not able to meet any of the requests. If he declines the final offer, his decision is based on more complete information. Should she accept, she does so with a better understanding of the institution’s structure and culture – and a correspondingly greater likelihood of success on your faculty.

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Elizabeth Simmons
Dr. Elizabeth H. Simmons is Dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics in the Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy.