In a post I missed last week called “Things that should go without saying, but obviously do not,” Flavia writes:
After signing a contract to accept a tenure-track job, you should not subsequently back out.
I now know of two people who have done this. And seriously, dudes, what’s so hard to figure out? If you weren’t sold on the institution, you shouldn’t have accepted the offer. If you were waiting to hear from another school where you had a campus visit, you should have told the offering institution that, and asked for more time. But if you thought you were out of the running someplace else, and then they came knocking–or if a fancier job appeared in the spring job list and you applied anyway–you kinda suck.
(My apologies to Flavia for copying and pasting her entire post–I thought that the whole thing was quoteworthy.)
I can certainly understand that a hiring department that thought its work was done and a tenure line filled in January or February would be irritated beyond measure if they were informed in March, April, or May (or later?) that in fact “their new hire” had decided to take another job instead. I’ve seen it happen. (And for the record, it wasn’t me! Sadly, I’ve never been offered more than one job at a time, or even within a span of several months.)
But–do we really want to hire people who don’t want to work with us? Do we really want to hire only people who have no other options? Sometimes other searches take longer, or they fail and have to bring in a whole new slate of candidates. Just f’r'instance, my university is terrible about spousal/partner employment these days, and we’re just far enough from Denver (about a 70 minute drive to most places, even if you’re driving the posted 75 MPH!) that this is a major hassle for most people with partners or families. And as much as I like it here, I recognize that my partner was lucky to find a job in the area. Some of my colleages’ partners have had to retrain for a new career, or they’re still struggling to patch together a living. Baa Ram U. does nothing for us, so why should we be surprised that people with partners find it difficult to say “yes” to our job offers?
When this happened in my department a few years ago, some of my colleagues were hot under the collar and talking about suing for breach of contract, about “making” someone teach for a year in our department because ze had signed a contract in February but then got a better job offer in April. The Dean of our college, who is also an attorney as well as a Ph.D., informed us that there was no recourse–the university was unwilling to spend the resources to “make” anyone do anything. (This was interesting news–the idea that our contracts are only one-way obligations on the part of the university. Of course, they might also be worthless in terms of securing anyone’s future behavior, which is interesting considering their role in the tenure and promotion process, but I digress. . . )
Even if Baa Ram U. were willing to go after a new Assistant Professor for breach of contract, did we really want a resentful colleague around even if for just one year? Because it seems to me that we’d be getting much less than we were paying for. Tenure-track people make more money than lecturers or adjuncts because we pay them to do more than teach. We pay them to engage 50% of the time in scholarship and service, none of which would be doing us any good in the short or the long run. (I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone who was only here and gone to engage in any worthwhile service.) So how much good could hir presence do for us? It seemed like a better deal all the way around to re-open the search and hire someone else either to 1) fill the tenure-track position, or 2) hire a full-time lecturer to cover the intended courses, plus a few more.
I don’t blame the person in question for leaving us behind for a better job that also offered better partner employment options. One of the things that I think speaks well of my department is that the people who leave us leave for much better jobs–for example, my former colleagues have gone to Toronto, Chicago, Utah, and Berkeley. It stinks to be left behind, but it would stink even more if my department were a career-ending stop at the end of the line. At least, that’s how I console myself–we get great people, but we just don’t have the resources to hang onto some of them.
It’s better than never getting great people in the first place, isn’t it?