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Summary: Signed a contract with school A while waiting for decisions from school B. Now got offer from B, and want to back out of the signed contract with A


What is the best strategy to back out a tenure track faculty offer and minimize its negative impact on both sides?

I am in an awkward situation. I interviewed two schools, A & B, this spring. School A made me an offer while B is still in the interview process. I contacted the B's committee chair about A's offer, the committee chair just said, everything is slow, no way to control it.

I asked around for suggestions. I was suggested by many people to take A's offer just to secure a faculty position. Yes, I did. After I signed A's offer and got ready to start this August, B suddenly notified me and is gonna make an offer.

B is a big top university and is very close to my family. A is a small teaching university and is very far away from my spouse. I visited A and their faculties are very nice. The chair is very supportive.

What should I do? I feel very guilty if I tell A, say - sorry, I cannot join you now.

Should I ask B to defer the starting date for 1 academic year, so that I can fulfill my duty at school A for my first year's contract so that A will not get mad at me? What shall I do if B will not agree to defer a year? Just back out A's offer brutally?

Any comments and suggestions are welcome and appreciated here.

Thank you!

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36

There's no way to do this gracefully. You call school A and tell them that you will not be joining them after all. Afterwards you deal with the fallout.

Before doing so you may want to estimate exactly how bad the fallout will be and whether it might affect your ability to do your job at school B.

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    May 14 at 18:00
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I would tread very lightly here, and perhaps consult a lawyer.

If this is in the US then many states have “At Will” employment clauses - you can’t be forced to take a job you don’t want, and an employer cannot be forced to employ you. There may be exceptions to this, like no competition clauses, but it’s not likely you had one. You could, once you have signed and secured the offer from B, go ahead and apply

That being said, job offers, once signed, are legal contracts, and you are bound to whatever it is you signed under the prevailing laws of whatever country/state you’re in. For example, it’s entirely possible that you leaving immediately means that you failed to give a proper 30 days notice to A before quitting your job, which may make you liable to a lawsuit. A lawyer would give you far better advice than Internet strangers, and would ensure that your interests are protected.

I agree that it is likely that you are not doing anything legally wrong, or that the university will go into the hassle of suing you if you are, being sued by a university (which has a ton of money and lawyers, at least in comparison to the average budding academic) can be a lengthy, expensive and painful process that may permanently damage your career.

In terms of other costs, the biggest one may be to your reputation. Dropping offers is frowned upon and could burn bridges you cannot afford to burn. However, if you explain the situation and position it right (say, you would love to go to A, but your wife cannot bear living away from her family so B is a better option) you may be able to not make people too angry.

As @EthanBolker says, act quickly before the hiring season ends, and A can figure it out.

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  • +1 Best answer, gotta be careful with contracts and pro legal advice is the safe play.
    – user45266
    May 13 at 5:33
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    Consulting an employment lawyer is really good advice. May 13 at 14:30
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    That said, "what you can get away with legally" doesn't really assess impact on career and reputation, as you say, so a lawyer is one part of this, and not the whole picture. May 13 at 14:31
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I agree with @user2705196 that there is no good way to do this. If you do I would tell A that you suddenly and surprisingly have an offer that will let you live with your spouse (and near family, but that's less weighty a reason).

Do say you'd be willing to defer B for a year in order not to leave A stuck.

Act soon. Hiring is still happening and A likely has a second choice who may still be available.

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    "Do say you'd be willing to defer B for a year in order not to leave A stuck." Only do this if you're actually willing to do this, and only after B has agreed to this in writing.
    – nick012000
    May 13 at 1:29
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    @nick012000 Indeed. I should have made that explicit. May 13 at 2:05
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This situation happens quite often and although other posters have already suggested all the best things you can do, here's my "do this and that" summary:

  • Do not drop the ball on A under any circumstances: academia is a very small pool and you don't want to acquire this kind of reputation. Nothing prevents you from applying for jobs after a year of so in A. You made a sub-optimal choice, but life doesn't end there.
  • Check with B, if they would be willing to wait for a year. If so, get that in writing. If not, forget B and move on with your life. If A doesn't suit you, keep applying for jobs: something will come your way sooner or later.
  • If B is willing to take you a year later, then you should eventually inform A that you'd be leaving just after one year. This is not uncommon and shouldn't cause much damage to anyone. You should do this before the next hiring season starts so that A is prepared. The chance that if you tell A right now, they would let you off the hook and happily pick the next candidate in line are very slim. Their "next best" choices have probably already been hired elsewhere. So I wouldn't recommend stirring the pot this way.
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    In the one-year deferral case you’re better off letting them know immediately. There’s a significant chance that their reaction will be to release you to take the other job without deferral. May 13 at 16:42
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    Maybe, I have my doubts about that however. It's very late in the hiring season, e.g., our department has long finished the process. Moreover by now, selecting a new candidate would mean that lots of internal gears have to start moving yet again, after the semester is finished (in most places) which won't make anyone happy...
    – Iiro Ullin
    May 13 at 17:55
  • In my dept, we'd rather have someone reneg that leave after a year - it's far more cost/effort to bring in a faculty member who leaves (and do another search) than restart a search.
    – E. Tucker
    May 14 at 16:23
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    I guess it depends a lot on the size of the department. At a big school, such as where I am, the search goes every year and hiring one more or less candidate makes no difference, while making another offer this late in the semester (today would be the last day here) is nigh impossible. @Etyan mentioned, however, that A is a small teaching college, so perhaps talking to them asap about the possibility of leaving in a year would indeed be sensible...
    – Iiro Ullin
    May 14 at 16:31
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Talk to your union.

If you're a university professor, there's a pretty good chance you're represented by a relevant employee union. Yes, even in the US. Hopefully, they have some experience with these situations and will be able to better advise you based on cases they've handled before. They might also offer legal representation, or at the very least - references to lawyers with experience with academic staff member clients.

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I think that you'll find that school A will be very understanding. They'll be disappointed, but in the end, they're wise enough to know that they really don't want a faculty member who won't be happy living apart from his spouse. I don't think you have to worry about any fallout. I'm pretty sure most departments in most schools have had this happen at least once.

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