Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

“Buyer’s market”


When did the values of the market become a substitute for ethical standards? I found myself wondering this in reading this article in Inside Higher Education about a young philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track job at Nazareth College in New York, replied with an enthusiastic email attempting to start a negotiation about starting salary, sabbatical, maternity leave, and limited teaching in her first year. Although she made clear that she didn’t expect all of her requests to be possible, the university responded with a brusque retraction of the job offer. Now, the misogyny of philosophy departments is by now well established, but this smackdown of a young colleague who has just been selected as the best available for a job in your department, merely for making some requests, seemed shocking to me. Not to the commenters on the IHE blog, though, who may be supposed to be mainly higher education professionals. Some sample comments:

She has too many requests and this is always a sign that a person is going to be a pain in the *&*%. Her requests on balance are not unreasonable but she is in no position to ask for all of this — it is a buyer’s market. … Lots of great people to choose from so why saddle yourself with someone who is challenged right off the bat.

several substantial requests, the sum of which went beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.

You just spent a semester narrowing hundreds (or more) candidates and arguing for this ONE person… only to have them forward THAT? Not exactly who I want to spend the rest of my career with (not to mention that the person clearly felt they were ‘playing with house money’ and could afford to lose the job offer… someone who REALLY wants the job wouldn’t risk that message).

(To be fair, some comments are supportive of the candidate, and others take on other issues.) What fascinate me in these responses are these references to a “buyer’s market” to which the presumably arrogant candidate should have meekly submitted, with the clear presumption that the logic of the market is proper and just. If you are in a powerful position, where you can take advantage of those unfortunate enough to have qualifications that are in high supply and low demand, then of course you should, and no one could be surprised if you do. It’s an argument that is rarely applied to those who are robbed at knifepoint by those stronger or more ruthless than themselves, but it does show up in certain comments on rape and on international relations. It’s the belief that power creates its own justification.

I am frequently reminded of Nietzsche’s remarks on markets in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science):

Kaufen und verkaufen gilt jetzt als gemein, wie die Kunst des Lesens und Schreibens; Jeder ist jetzt darin eingeübt, selbst wenn er kein Handelsmann ist, und übt sich noch an jedem Tage in dieser Technik: ganz wie ehemals, im Zeitalter der wilderen Menschheit, Jedermann Jäger war und sich Tag für Tag in der Technik der Jagd übte.

Buying and selling are common skills nowadays, like the art of reading and writing: Everyone is accomplished in it, even if he’s not a businessman, and practices every day, just as in earlier times, in the days of primitive man, everyone was a hunter, and practiced that skill every day.

One last point: The largest number of commenters fault the young scholar for her “tone”. Everyone knows, apparently, that you don’t put this sort of thing so baldly in an email, for God’s sake! Obviously they had no choice but to rescind the offer when she attacked them with an EMAIL that clearly laid out what she would like. This is pretty hilarious, given how much philosophers pride themselves on their ruthlessly direct style of academic disputation, with some of them arguing that the would-be philosophers with excessive numbers of X chromosomes can’t hack it.

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