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I have received a written offer from a US university (University A) for a tenure track position which I signed and returned after agreeing on all the negotiating terms. However, I have not heard back from the University (Provost's office) regarding the official background check and onboarding process for over a month now. The department chair is usually responsive, and we had several email conversations about and around my starting date this August. Having said all this, I am still waiting to hear from University A more specifically provost's office, and from my end, tensions are mounting as I have already rejected an offer from another university (University B) and stopped interviewing at other places. The University B offer that I rejected worked differently and completed the background check before sending out the written offer, which was pretty quick.

Now that I am left with nothing but to wait and hear from University A, I am wondering if there is a chance that University A might rescind its offer at this stage.

Update: The university did not rescind the offer. I was able to join as AP however, I did not have the onboarding started as late as Aug 10, 2023. In the meantime, I had to relocate (~350 miles) at my own expense with my family with this uncertainty. In the process, the Department Chair was helpful in assuring me with my concerns and questions.

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    Do you need to obtain a visa? Are you already residing in the US? I am asking just because that may provide you some leverage in asking HR what is going on...
    – EarlGrey
    May 17, 2023 at 16:29
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    I am a permanent resident. So, I don't need a visa. However, as I get closer to my start date, relocation is a concern. I can't finalize the renting place if they are this quiet!
    – neoceph
    May 17, 2023 at 18:46
  • I just wanted to come back and provide an update! Everything is ok but the onboarding process didn't start until 1 week before the class starts.
    – neoceph
    Sep 15, 2023 at 18:10
  • Thank you for the update. Glad it worked out. Mar 17 at 20:09

4 Answers 4

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Since this is a legal question, the exact answer depends on your jurisdiction and the terms of the relevant offer. If necessary, you should seek legal advice from an employment lawyer in your jurisdiction. Below I will give some basic information that applies in most jurisdictions.

The typical legal position in such cases is that a binding employment contract exists once there is an offer and acceptance (with consideration and an intent to create legal relations), which appears to have occurred here. An exception to this can occur if an essential term is not yet agreed, in which case courts may find that the agreement is not sufficiently complete to be legally binding. However, my understanding is that courts have typically viewed employment contracts as binding even if the start date has not yet been agreed (and have usually imposed some implied term here). In cases where an employment offer is conditional on background checks, etc., it may be a "conditional offer" which gives rise to a slightly different kind of contract (see related answer here). From what you have described, it sounds extremely likely that you have a binding contractual employment relationship with this university(at least conditional on background checks) that gives rise to some employment entitlements to you.

Since it is likely that there is already a binding contract here, the university cannot just rescind its offer. Assuming your background check does not raise problems, if the university does not want to follow through on the role then it will need to terminate your employment in accordance with the relevant rules for termination. If this occurs then you may have a valid cause of action for breach of contract, with damages taking account of lost opportunity (e.g., turning down another offer). Laws relating to termination of employment contracts vary significantly by jurisdiction, in terms of allowable causes and notice for termination, and entitlements/damage that may accrue on termination.

As some practical advice here, continue to correspond with the university by email to make it clear that you expect to start in August, and that any delays in starting will have an adverse financial impact. This will put the university on written notice of the adverse effects of its delays, which will put you in a stronger position if this later escalates into a legal dispute. If things get to a point where you are really concerned, go and see an employment lawyer to get advice.

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A borderline response that's closer to an answer than a comment: I'm in precisely the same situation you are and it really hasn't crossed my mind to be concerned about this. From the university's perspective they have until early August at absolute latest to get a criminal background check done and it's totally routine. They just happened to initiate that process for me Tuesday, and the report was finished by Wednesday.

If you have no criminal history it's not worth worrying about this. The only situations where you don't end up starting a job with this employer in the fall is one so globally catastrophic that it will be the least of your problems. And I mean that seriously: Every story I've heard even about, e.g., COVID is that all but the smallest schools honored employment offers that were already signed.

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Posters and commenters are, in my view, addressing two different issues:

  1. The OP's question, which is asking if the university can rescind a written offer.
  2. Should the OP worry, ie is it likely that the university is walking back its offer.

The short answers are:

  1. Yes.
  2. No.

Long answers:

  1. As correctly pointed by @Bryan Krause, most states in the US have hire-at-will laws. This means that an employer can fire you, at any moment, for any reason, and without explanation other than telling you "get out." (the only exception are protected categories, such as race, gender, disability, etc.) This includes firing you before your start date. This changes with your particular circumstances, e.g. if there's a faculty union, although you'd have to check if you are a member of the union before you pay dues, since you have not started. If it's a public university, different rules apply too. If there's an employee manual with a "just cause" clause, then then it depends on the exact language. And, of course, the exact laws of your state. But the point still stands: in the US hire-at-will means fire-at-will.
  2. Welcome to academia and get used to the incompetence of university administrators. I would not be surprised if your paperwork is stuck between two secretaries, if the provost has a foot-high stack of papers they have to sign and ignored for months, if the admin allowed the department to hire you but did not allocate the funds and is now scrambling to find the money. At my university, it is not uncommon for a simple matter to require 10 signatures, all in "wet ink" (as admins call it), so the paper must travel the university several times over, many times getting lost and the process restarted. In this context, it is not unusual to take more than a month for a complicated matter like a new hire with background checks etc. Heck, when I was hired back in the day, I think I heard from the provost when they hired me in March, and then again in August.
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First of all, congratulations!

This is extremely unlikely. Once you signed the offer, it is a legal commitment that the university made. In particular, rescinding this offer now leaves the university liable. In the US, you can sue them for significant damages (you said it yourself - you just rejected an offer from another university).

There's probably some discussions that are still happening, or just general admin nonsense that needs to be sorted out. I wouldn't worry.

You can ping the department head again to just politely remind them that you are waiting for confirmation. You can also ask things about your move, like putting you in touch with real-estate agents, classes you will be teaching etc. This way it won't seem like you're just hassling them.

Edit: Though the laws differ by state, you are very likely to be entitled for damages if they rescind your offer. Some states (e.g. Massachusetts) would even consider a verbal offer a binding contract. In addition, the reputational damage that the university will suffer from pulling a stunt like this is not worth rescinding your offer.

As an additional data point - it took my university (in the US) time to set up the background check as well. This is because those are usually run by an external firm that specializes in this sort of thing, and they might be overwhelmed.

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    A department cannot send out an offer without getting the funding approved and earmarked for the position. It's usually accompanied by a signed letter from the department head/dean.
    – Spark
    May 17, 2023 at 16:24
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    I'm making very standard assumptions based on the fact the they're applying for a US university. Rescinding offers before signing is already seen as an egregious ethical issue. After signing, you have an employment contract. This is a legal document. The university must follow it or face the very real legal consequences.
    – Spark
    May 17, 2023 at 16:30
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    The only conditions for legally rescinding an offer after signing is if the university finds that the applicant lied in their application materials, if they have a criminal background they did not disclose, or if something similarly dramatic happened (e.g. the applicant committed a crime after the offer was accepted).
    – Spark
    May 17, 2023 at 16:32
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    To be more dramatic - even if the university burns to the ground, the applicant is likely entitled to damages after signing that contract.
    – Spark
    May 17, 2023 at 16:33
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    In many US states with at-will employment, "rescinding this offer now leaves the university liable" is not correct; you can be fired at any time and can quit at any time without any penalty on either party unless you have a different agreement otherwise or have violated a specific prohibition like firing based on race or gender. Firing/quitting can occur before or after the start date.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 17, 2023 at 17:24

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