The Ethical Historian: Notes and Queries on Professional Conduct
The Ethical Historian features the Professional Division’s reactions to the ethical and professional questions it regularly receives. We welcome suggestions for this column, which may be sent to the division members listed below at PD@historians.org. The Professional Division will not reveal in this column the identities, or identifying characteristics, of individuals or institutions involved.
Over the years, quite a few candidates have contacted the AHA’s Professional Division, concerned that a prospective employer is pressuring them to make what they see as an unreasonably quick decision on accepting or rejecting the offer of a faculty position. And though we hear from bewildered candidates who feel pressured for a quick decision, search committees tell us that they are keen to make a hire but also fearful that if the search should fail, the department may lose the position altogether. It should come as no surprise that these two needs—that of the applicant who hopes to have choices, and that of the department which needs to fill its position—do not always mesh. What is to be done?
Job season is always a stressful time for candidates, as it is for departments with jobs available. Both groups have invested tremendous energy and labor in this process, and though there is inevitably a power imbalance that favors those doing the hiring, their concerns and the pressures they may face internally do need to be taken into account too. When it comes to deadlines on job offers, both parties have good claims and justifiable anxieties.
Still, candidates need to be given time to weigh what is, undoubtedly, a huge decision that could affect a significant portion of their lives and perhaps those of their families as well. For the fortunate candidate with more than one prospect on the horizon, the possibility of a choice is hugely attractive, and the idea of walking away before knowing the outcome of a campus visit is hard. Not surprisingly, such candidates would prefer to maximize their options, amassing multiple job offers to help them negotiate salary and benefits, give them choices, and—let’s not forget—make them feel good about their work.
While the institution making the offer has the upper hand, the concerns that precipitate its pushing for a decision are not without substance. Obviously, an institution hopes to hire the candidate it regards as the best fit, so the sooner it can sign that person up, the better. Unfilled faculty lines are not automatically guaranteed and often fall victim to cost cutting, hence the anxiousness often displayed by departments when making an offer. A failed search is always disappointing: it’s bad for morale, it’s a hit to the institutional pocketbook, and there’s that lingering fear that there might not be a second chance.
It is our contention, however, that while these pressures exist and are important, quibbling over small units of time is unlikely to make much of a difference (for the most part we are talking about not weeks and weeks, but a few extra days until another institution decides or another interview round is completed).
While there is no perfect solution that will harmonize these competing instincts, the AAUP and the AHA both recommend that candidates should be given at least two weeks to decide whether they will accept an offer. In March 2007, the AHA Council issued its Guidelines for Job Offers in History, a document that, following AAUP recommendations, urges departments to ensure that candidates are given a minimum of two weeks after receiving a written offer in which to render their decision. As the guidelines point out, job candidates may well want to consult mentors and family members before deciding, and may also have further questions that need to be resolved before they feel they can commit. Once a candidate accepts a position, however, that acceptance should be considered binding on both parties.
Departments should be responsive to reasonable requests from candidates for an extension of the minimum two weeks when possible. Certainly such requests should never be ignored, nor should offers ever be withdrawn because a candidate has made such a request. Candidates have every right to make such a request and should not be penalized for doing so.
If a department, in making an offer, allows the candidate less than the recommended two weeks, candidates should, in a nonconfrontational manner, politely make the department chair aware of AHA and AAUP guidelines (see below). If that seems daunting, as it well might to a freshly minted candidate, then most advisers are well positioned to intervene on behalf of the candidate. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in that way if you’re a job seeker worried about the risk of offending the department that made the offer.
The job search is a stressful process, especially for the candidate but also for the department mounting the search. Both parties have a lot to gain, and a modicum of goodwill and reasonable expectations on both sides will always move things along. Offering at minimum a full two weeks to prospective colleagues, so that they may make a reasonable and informed decision, is only sensible and fair, and we urge departments to observe this important best practice. We also ask candidates to be sensitive to departmental concerns, to be honest about their intentions, and to avoid unnecessarily lengthy decision making whenever possible. The result will be happier hires and happy starts to new careers.
The AHA’s Professional Division collects and disseminates information about employment opportunities and helps ensure equal opportunities for all historians as well as helping set guidelines for professional ethics. Members of the division are Catherine Epstein (Amherst College), Mary Louise Roberts (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Andrew Jon Rotter (Colgate University), and Philippa Levine (University of Texas at Austin, and vice president, Professional Division).
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