Friday, March 14, 2014

"Fit" and Nazareth College

Yesterday a piece in Inside Higher Ed on a rescinded job offer raised quite the twitterstorm on the academic net. And with good reason. According to a post on a philosophy board, a woman received a job offer from Nazareth College, in Rochester NY, then began to negotiate over terms of the contract. The department responded by rescinding the job offer.

In comments, on twitter, and around the web, academics debated, many finding the job candidate's negotiation strategy either unwise or entitled and defending NC's decision to pull the offer. They cite the "tone" of the negotiation email and argue that she revealed she wasn't a good "fit."

Tone and fit. The critique of tone, as the very active twitter historian @thehistorianess argues, perhaps emerges out of a specifically gendered response. I'll come back to that in a moment, because I agree, but I want to explore the concept of "fit" for a moment.

We hear a lot about fit in academic hiring, but I think it's a troubling phrase. Yes, it can refer to whether a person's career goals and strengths fit in well with the program considering hiring them, and that makes sense. But far too often, I think, it conceals various kinds of bias. "Fit" implies looking for a kind of likeness, a similarity, or perhaps a puzzle piece to fit in the empty space. Fit is nebulous, allowing a committee to overlook qualifications (though basically everyone is really well qualified) in exchange for valuing other kinds of factors.

I'm sure, in most cases, committees apply "fit" in appropriate ways: Is this person a dynamic teacher? Do they know how to teach first-generation students? Can they function at a big public university? But even these questions basically are looking for same-ness. Elite SLACs hire from elite SLACs (preferably with fancy private R1 phds). Fancy private R1s from fancy R1s. Big publics from big publics (or fancy private R1s). 

Even worse, though, fit can code for more pernicious kinds of bias. Race. Gender. Orientation. Class. Religion. Class is one of the big ones for me, as I think we talk about it a little less in the field than the others (not that they aren't huge problems too!). I know of so many stories of job applicants who felt they lost the job (and who really knows) when unable to talk about fine dining, or the latest movies, or the proper sports, or other kinds of knowledges that code for class. In an interview process for which "fit" might determine which of the final candidates receives that precious offer, "fit" offers a shield for like to attract like. "Fit" threatens the diversity of the academy.

Here are the emails in question, if you haven't seen them:
W's: [the candidate]
As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier. 
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years. 
2) An official semester of maternity leave. 
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock. 
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years. 
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc. 
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.
Nazareth's response:
Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you. 
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.
So there we have it. What really interests me here is the response to W around the web. I've read so many accusations that she had a bad tone, too demanding, too strident. That she revealed she wouldn't be a good "fit" with her wild demands and that's why NC made the decision. But I agree with Historianess who tweeted (you can see original tweets towards the end of that storify above):
"Would anyone be commenting on her tone, the nature of what she asked for, and how she asked for it, if she were a man?" "The answer is no. The outrage on fb, twitter, and inside higher ed is bc this candidate did not behave as we think a female academic should." "If a man had been resolute, firm, confident, & clear in his tone no one would be criticizing him. Hardball negotiations are expected of men."
Yes, she's concerned about teaching preps. This is normal. Yes, she's concerned about her research agenda. It's a really hard transition from graduate school - where we are trained and praised as future scholars - to the teaching school. She's worried about salary, preps and wants to complete her post-doc.

She's ALSO following the advice of numerous articles that emphasize your right to negotiate once you have a job (a quick selection from IHE and CHE. There are vastly more. They all say - ask for what you want, try to express happiness about the job offer first, then be ready to accept no for an answer. W did that).

But in asking for what she wanted, she revealed that she might not "fit."

I can't say what went on inside the NC department in the decision to withdraw the offer. I find it surprising that in a long interview process they wouldn't have been aware of her research aspirations or be so willing to go back on their decision. I, like others, suspect that they read her as a pushy woman and fled quickly. But I don't know.

But in the comments on tone and fit throughout, I see acceptable smokescreens for bias. 

4 comments:

  1. I think imposing a gender lens on the response of Nazareth is silly, honestly. I used to teach at Nazareth, and like a lot of smaller liberal arts colleges, they survive on the good will and extra effort of their faculty. For her to be demanding things that likely other tenured professors don't necessarily enjoy at a smaller liberal arts college like Nazareth indicates that she has expectations which are going to make her perpetually disappointed. That makes her not a good fit. And I don't see how that if a man made those demands he would be seen as any more of a good fit. Man or woman, if you are asking for exceptions and special exemptions for yourself which the long-serving faculty do not receive and have not received for years, you will not be seen as a good team player, fully committed to the institution. Deal with reality, don't turn it into a gender issue per your own peculiarly focused lenses...

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Two points.

      1. I believe that the gendered lens is deeply evident in the internet reaction to W.'s story. I think there's going to be an IHE piece on those reactions, the moralizing, tomorrow (not by me), so you can check it out.

      2. Read this: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/03/17/should_women_negotiate_for_more_pay_a_female_academic_leans_in_and_allegedly.html. Here's a money quote (but there's much more, so if you want to have this conversation, go read the whole thing)

      "In a 2007 study, Linda Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles found that men and women were less likely to want to both hire and work with women who asked for raises; the go-getting femmes were perceived as demanding and uncollegial. Raise-seeking men, on the other hand, faced no backlash at all: Not only did the study participants tend to grant them lots of (hypothetical) perks, but socially their images went untarnished. "

      So the specifics of W's case are not knowable to outsiders. But it perfectly fits a pattern.

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  2. Do we know that the candidate to whom they did offer the job was not a woman?

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    1. Not relevant. The read here is that as a "pushy woman," she encountered difficulty for lack of fit. That may or may not be true, but it's a reasonable read given the available evidence.

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