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I have been in my current teaching/research position for 4 years. I have just been informed that my contract is research only. I think technically this means I don't have to be teaching. My School and HR want to issue a new contract (which I am sure will take months/years). I would prefer to be research only. I think if there was a screw up and I was listed as teaching only, getting moved to teaching/research would be a real fight with HR. Do I put up a fight about the change? To what extent do contracts matter?

EDIT: I took the job with the expectation of doing both teaching and research. I have had a standard teaching load consistent with other new hires on teaching/research contracts. I have been under the impression that I have to teach as part of my job. The contract doesn't say anything about teaching (in fact it says little about specific job duties). This didn't strike me as odd when I signed the contract. Now on an unrelated issue I have learned that this is odd and means I do not have to teach. The university would like to modify my contract to include teaching duties (which I am already doing and am happy doing).

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Please provide more details. What is your current teaching/research load. Do you have to teach? Or just when there is a need? –  user4050 Nov 26 '12 at 11:59
    
There seems to be a contradiction between “HR want to issue a new contract” and “getting moved to teaching/research would be a real fight with HR”. Could you clarify? –  F'x Nov 26 '12 at 12:15
    
@F'x I was saying that if the mistake was the other way and I wanted to go from teaching only to teaching/research that it would be a fight. –  StrongBad Nov 26 '12 at 12:49
    
Are you worried that there will be an error in the new contract which will enforce too much teaching on you? But I guess the new contract won't be valid until signed by you, so this should be easy to avoid... –  silvado Nov 26 '12 at 14:59
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, contracts matter, as they define the legal obligations between you and your employer. Note that it is not the contract only, but also the legal framework on which it is built (laws and decrees directly applicable to your situation). But, you have correctly identified the correct question to ask: even if the law is on your side, is it worth picking this fight? You can only answer by a careful analysis of risks and benefits. I list a few ideas below…


I have just been informed that my contract is research only.

Haven't you been handed your contract when you signed it? If not, that's a serious misconduct on their part and gives you leverage you can use.

I think technically this means I don't have to be teaching

This probably depends on the exact details of the contract, which we don't know. Read it and have it read by a lawyer, or at least a union representative or counselor.

Do I put up a fight about the change? To what extent do contracts matter?

What is missing most importantly here is your current relationship with your hierarchy (department chair, dean, whatever) and what is their position/wishes on this issue. Standing up to the bureaucrats is one thing, and while you may not get into their good graces, it can be a fight worth fighting. Standing up to your department chair can open a whole new can of worms.

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When I took the job we (HR, head of school, and myself) all agreed I would do research and have a standard teaching load. The contract doesn't say I have to teach and I just found out that HR interprets this as meaning I don't have to teach. They would like to amend the contract to state I have to teach. –  StrongBad Nov 26 '12 at 13:05
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If I am understanding your situation correctly, when you were hired you had a certain understanding with your department and university about your duties, which included both teaching and research. Since you don't say otherwise, it sounds like there are "standard" such duties in your department. Also there was a standard contract, and by some strange mistake you were given and signed a different, nonstandard contract. After four years of fulfilling your standard duties, the nonstandard contract has been brought to your attention. Do I have all that right?

Now you are asking whether you should "put up a fight" about the fixing the mistaken contract. If your question is a legal one, of course get a lawyer who is an expert in the specifics of your situation.

But are you really contemplating fighting against what you verbally agreed to when you took the job and the job you have been actually doing for the last four years because a contract you signed says otherwise and the difference may work out in your favor? To me that sounds like horrible behavior. If your bank had noticed after four years that they had mistakenly added a zero to your account balance, would you also fight the correction of the error? Do you not have any ethical qualms about this?

As a justification you say that you wonder that if the situation were essentially reversed, correcting the oversight would be "a real fight with HR". First of all: is this guess grounded in any kind of history with the HR department at your university? Have they in fact been difficult with you in the past? If not it seems like you are simply assuming bad faith. Here's what I think would happen if you discovered your contract was all teaching and no research and tried to change it: there would be plenty of red tape, the entire process would take an order of magnitude longer than you felt that it reasonably should and would occupy too much of your time, but the final outcome would not really be in doubt due to the essential goodwill of the various parties, including people like your department chair/head who would come out on your behalf.

Aside from being ethically highly suspect, a decision to fight the change of your contract is likely to earn you the ill will of HR and other administration in your university and -- probably more importantly -- of the department chair/head and other faculty members. You are contemplating not doing your share of the departmental work because of some technicality that you wonder whether you might be able to get away with. To me that sounds like you are contemplating whether to reserve the right to try to screw over your colleagues at some later time. Unless that is your actual goal, I would steer well clear of this.

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I'd second the idea that one should stick to verbal agreements. The fact that many people do try to "game the system" ought not be sufficient motivation to try to do so. One should not even cheat people who'd cheat you if they had a chance. :) –  paul garrett Nov 26 '12 at 15:55
    
You summarized it very well. Our department, like many others that I have heard of, has a history of not honoring informal non-written agreements. Our department might be worse than others in that our overhead accounts were recently reset to zero. I know people who were "promised" pre-tenure teaching releases and sabbaticals that never materialized. –  StrongBad Nov 26 '12 at 16:01
    
I think Pete's answer gets this right. If you already informally agreed to this and it's what's standard for the job than you shouldn't fight. That said, by fixing the error without a fight you are doing them a favor (albeit a reasonable one), so you could ask for a reasonable favor in return. Again, not worth fighting over, but if there's something minor that you've been wanting fixed you could ask. –  Noah Snyder Nov 26 '12 at 17:00
    
@Daniel: I'm sorry that the level of trust and goodwill in your department (and between your department and your university) is low. I believe I still agree with Paul Garrett: it is better to take the high road. If things deteriorate enough, then in principle it is game-theoretically correct to push back. But you are playing a very asymmetrical version of the Prisoner's Dilemma: your department and university have much more power and opportunity to make your life unpleasant than the other way around. If things are really that bad, it may be best to look for a different job. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 26 '12 at 17:07
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Another point is how your colleagues would feel about your ducking out of teaching. I suppose it's possible that they would admire you for sticking it to the man (so to speak), but I think it's much more likely that they'd feel you were taking advantage of them as much as any faceless administrators. I would probably feel that way, for instance. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 26 '12 at 17:09
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This sounds like a potential big screw up. If your contract says one thing and you were promise another, you should put up a fight. Certainly, put up the fight before signing anything.

Contracts matter when someone tries to get you to do something you would rather not do. If you don't want a heavy teaching loads, then your research-only contract would help you avoid that. If you don't have such a contract, then you've lost your leverage.

Informal agreements do not stand the test of time, especially if there is a contradictory written agreement (signed by you).

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The odd issue is that I like what the contract says more than I like what was promised. Now they want to rewrite the contract to represent what was promised. –  StrongBad Nov 26 '12 at 12:59
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