Can faculty counteroffers be applied more equitably?

May 14, 2024
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When a faculty member receives a job offer from an outside organization or institution, their current employer often responds with a counteroffer—a written contract outlining increased salary and benefits—in an effort to retain them. But according to a new study, such counteroffers are often not extended equitably or based on any sort of objective formula or criteria; in fact, they constitute a “nebulous, inefficient, discretionary, and inequitable” practice, the report says.

Published last week in Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education Research, the study found that women and racially minoritized scholars were less likely to receive counteroffers than their white, male peers.

“Those are concerning areas, especially as institutions suggest that they’ll do whatever it takes to achieve faculty diversity,” said Damani White-Lewis, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and co-author of the report. “I don’t think we think about [counteroffers] as a faculty diversity strategy as deliberately as we think about, say, faculty hiring, but it is still a part of that calculus.”

The study, titled “Counteroffers for faculty at research universities: who gets them, who doesn’t, and what factors produce them?,” also looked at variables such as tenure status and whether a faculty member notified their administrator about the outside offer. Tenured professors and those who announced their outside offer were both far more likely to receive counteroffers, about 315 percent and 420 percent, respectively. Other factors that impacted the use of counteroffers as retention strategy include the faculty member’s field of study, length of employment and the Carnegie classification of their institution.

White-Lewis and his co-authors used quantitative survey data, collected by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), from 650 full-time faculty members at 37 different research institutions between July 2015 and 2019 to explore which faculty populations were more likely to receive counteroffers from their home institution, and why.

Looking Beyond Face Value

At first glance, not all inequities surrounding counteroffers were clear cut. For example, comparing the proportional receipt of such offers between men and women showed no significant difference.

But when controlled for other variables, such as tenure status or whether the faculty member notified an administrator about their outside offer, men were nearly 80 percent more likely to receive a counteroffer than women, and white faculty members were 64 percent more likely to receive counteroffers than their faculty peers of color.

“When we put it into the model, and we control for other things, we might start to notice that women are less likely to tell their department that they’ve received an outside offer. Or as a result of the nature and structures of institutions, women may be less likely to receive tenure,” said Nicholas Havey, director of institutional research at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and another co-author of the report. “So when we boil down all these other possible contexts and decision factors, that’s when we start seeing a significant relationship.”

He added that the range of institutions and faculty positions covered makes it hard for naysayers to cherry-pick the findings or argue that the statistical patterns aren’t generalizable.

“We’re seeing the trends hold true and strong across a very wide breadth of institutional contexts,” he said.

Still, White-Lewis acknowledged that there’s room to strengthen future findings with a larger more comprehensive data set.

“This isn’t a perfect model,” he admitted. “It’s a good model, but it isn’t perfect. We don’t have every single variable that we would have liked to have included.”

Reliable Data, Creating Consistency

To Susan Carlson, Vice Provost Emerita for Academic Personnel and Programs in the University of California System, it is “hugely important” that White-Lewis and Havey were able to report on differences by race and gender at all.

“It’s been very difficult to have reliable data to do that,” said Carlson, who has spent much of her career analyzing best practices for faculty diversity and retention. “In the absence of reliable data, people had opinions about what trends there were, but this really helps us validate what’s actually going on.”

Carlson and Todd Benson, executive director and principal investigator for COACHE, both expressed hope that the study will encourage university leaders to expand their internal data collection and increase external transparency on counteroffers moving forward.

“We typically have between 25 and 35 institutions partnering with COACHE every year,” Benson said. “But the more institutions we get, the more robust the data can be over time.”

Comprehensive quantitative data, combined with qualitative surveys of the administrators who manage counteroffers, will help put an end to a “well-kept secret” that has “created a place for implicit bias,” he added.

“One of the values for administrators is to see the inconsistencies in the process,” Benson said, “and when there’s inconsistency, that’s when you get opportunities for inequity.”

Carlson said that although she agrees the lack of counteroffer policy at many campuses allows administrators to act on assumptions or biases, some level of case-by-case discretion must remain.

“There’s no policy that can answer how you’re going to treat every case, and that wouldn’t be effective either,” she said. “So by nature you need that discretion. It’s how you exercise the discretion, that’s the key.”

Macro and Micro Change

It was precisely the lack of consistency and dearth of research on the subject that prompted White-Lewis and Havey to initiate the study.

“It provides evidence where there wasn’t evidence previously, and that’s a really powerful mechanism when you’re trying to make a case for change,” White-Lewis said. “Because we work in academia, evidence bases are one of the strongest determinants—not the strongest, because I really think money talks—but it helps instigate or prompt an organizational change when you have data to say something is true.”

Havey added that the findings not only benefit education researchers in the world of equity theory, but can also help administrators improve efficiency. He pointed to prior research on a five-year, $50 million faculty diversity project that started at Yale University in 2015 as an example.

“What we found was that they didn’t have a hiring problem; they had a retention problem,” Havey said. “They were hiring all these great faculty of color, and all these great junior scholars in different fields, and hemorrhaging them after a year.”

“It’s a really costly process,” he added, but better regulation and oversight to ensure equity in counteroffers could help change that.

Moving forward, both co-authors hope that their research will not only encourage more universities to implement a counteroffer liaison to oversee all retention attempts, but also help individuals advocate for themselves.

“Hopefully, for the next faculty member who doesn’t receive a counteroffer—or they do receive one, but the benefits aren’t exactly what they need to be able to be kept—they can use this article to say, ‘Look, this is a national issue, and I would hate to be just another number of somebody who wasn’t able to be retained,’” White-Lewis said.



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