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I have a question related to potentially backing out of a tenure track faculty offer I signed. Ideally I'd love to get feedback from established faculty or others well-familiar with the black hole of academic faculty positions and searches. I've read all the responses to similar questions, but this is a unique situation and I'm at a loss as to what I should do -- thus input from those familiar with the 'other side' of faculty hiring would be most helpful. I would note up front I am not asking "can I bail on a signed offer for a better one", as this is just something I couldn't do.

Recently (March), I signed an offer at a public university in Texas for a tenure track faculty position, Lets call it "University A". A week later, the Texas legislature began the process of moving several higher education bills into law, one (SB18) which sought to abolish tenure at TX public universities, and another (SB17) which sought to abolish DEI offices and program in TX public universities. Despite assurances from multiple faculty (including the deptartment chair,) since then, these bills, in one form or another, have passed the senate and the house (effectively no chance the governor won't sign them.)

While the anti-tenure bill was modified by the House to no longer ban tenure, it still adds a litany of poorly-defined reasons a tenured faculty can be dismissed without much recourse by administrators (including "moral turpitude,") which could heavily weaken tenure, or not do much to it depending on implementation. The anti-DEI bill, however, passed with flying colors. The latter is particularly problematic, as it may have a very strong negative effect on attaining funding from multiple federal and private sources, due to their requirement of DEI/outreach components which will now be very hard to implement at public universities in Texas, having a potentially major impact on funding. Not to mention what the 'optics' of this will do to future recruitment to this department or many in TX, and possible established faculty egress as well.

During this time (following my signing, while SB18 was written to fully abolish tenure) I contacted a university/department whose search was still ongoing, but which I had already notified that I had accepted a position, to tell that I may not be as decided as I thought -- lets call it "University B". This department is now in the deciding phase, and I've been told I am a top candidate (search chair,) whatever that means in this context.

While these bills have an unequivocally negative effect on a faculty position in TX, given that the full outcome is ambiguous in the degree of negative, is it acceptable to back out of a signed offer in this unique context? Should Uni B offer me a position?

I would never be able to just bail on a signed offer for a better place, and am quite aware of how such reneging will negatively impact Uni A, but in the context of this legislation (not to mention that this is the most stressful decision I've ever made independent of said legislation) I have major concerns -- the landscape of the position I signed for has since changed considerably regardless of what happens. Of course, if TX had fully abolished tenure the offer I signed would be unambiguously no longer valid, which would simplify things a bit. Currently it is almost the worst place one could be with respect to reneging.

EDIT: A few UT AAUP links for those masochistic enough to want to see more details related to these bills:

Analysis and history of tenure bill.

DEI bill's potential impact on funding.

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    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 3, 2023 at 16:51

7 Answers 7

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I'd guess that the administration will sympathize with you. There should be no problems withdrawing, especially if you point out your reasons. A tenure track position is supposed to lead to tenure and the Texas Legislature is putting that in doubt, fundamentally changing the likelihood of having a successful career in the state.

To protect yourself, however, send a letter saying that you want to withdraw in spite of signing the letter, giving reasons. If they haven't given you anything of value yet it is unlikely that there could be legal repercussions in the worst case.

Do what you think best. Good luck. There are actually places that value higher education and the contributions it makes to society.

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    @RichardHardy The discussed changes to tenure are objectively bad for higher education. The DEI laws need to fit into the context of the federal laws. There is federal funding with conditions attached that may or may not be bad for higher education in general. The Texas law says you may not get this funding. That is objectively bad for higher education.
    – quarague
    Jun 15, 2023 at 8:02
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    @quarague, I understand the mechanism but I am not on board with the broader conclusions. I will not discuss this here, however, as it is off topic w.r.t. this thread. I just wanted to point out to Buffy that IMHO the last sentence does not enhance the quality of the answer (rather the opposite). Jun 15, 2023 at 8:06
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    I think the last line makes a useful point. Walking away from a job offer is a means of making protest against legislation that someone thinks harms higher education. If nothing else it gives the university evidence to cite if they want to lobby against it. It is not an unreasonable consideration from either side of the argument. If the Texas Legislature had not considered this as a possible effect of their actions, they should have. Jun 15, 2023 at 12:02
  • 1
    As Richard said, the last sentence is poorly worded. It doesn't matter whether the changes to Texas law are good or bad for higher education. It matters whether they align with OP's values.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 15, 2023 at 17:29
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    @BenVoigt, to clarify, my point was that the last sentence seems to imply Texas does not value HE and its contribution to society. I think one could easily argue the opposite. Your observation on alignment with OP's values is a different point. Not saying anything about the latter, just clarifying my point. Jun 15, 2023 at 20:36
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You are perfectly permitted to have an opinion about the ongoing changes in Texas laws.

It is ethically acceptable to back out of an acceptance due to changes outside your control that decrease its desirability to you. Particular after the administrators made representations to you about the changes that turned out not to be true. You aren't trying to game the system here.

The only case where you morally wouldn't have an out would be if you aware of the coming changes and chose to accept to "hedge your bets" without letting the other party know of your concerns.

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I am a tenured full professor in life sciences at a state university in Texas, and a former department chair. For all I know it could be MY department that has made you an offer and we might have even have met during your interview processes. Over the years I've seen pretty much everything and what I'm going to say echoes some comments above. Given that the conditions have changed since the time you interviewed (even though tenure has been preserved in Texas) you should not feel any compunctions about withdrawing your offer should something that you feel more comfortable with arises soon. I should note that the policies for tenure and post-tenure review required by the legislature are policies that our Board of Regents has required for many years. The legislature would not have known or cared about that but it is reality. For now, we have escaped. I honestly have no idea how abolishing DEI offices will affect your ability to get NIH or NSF grants. I don't need to competitively renew my grants for a couple of years but even without a specific office I am confident the university will find a way to remain in compliance. BUT, my concern is over the long run. It could be that this is the beginning of Death From A Thousand Cuts. I am convinced that the people that run the state of Texas believe that education of its citizenry hurts their long-term prospects for holding on to political power and so they will do everything that they can to weaken education. On the other hand they are also very interested in money, and corporate interests within the state are aware that universities are essential for their well-being. These corporate interests tend to donate a lot of money to the people that run the state. They are part of the reason tenure survived. My recommendation is make sure you have offer B well in hand before you withdraw from offer A. I actually moved from a public university in a different state to Texas earlier in my career because I was concerned about long-term prospects of maintaining my career. It was the right move then. In fact when I accepted that first position I had it pretty well in my mind that at some point I would probably end up leaving. I stayed nine years. I got tenure and I was able to move because I had been successful. To be honest if I was younger I might consider going onto the job market again now for the same reasons. The problem is that this insanity is somewhat contagious and the number of public universities where you will be safe from this kind of thing in the future has diminished, which means finding jobs in places where you feel more comfortable becomes that much more difficult.

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Sorry to hear you are in this position. In the end, only you can decide what's best for you (both rationally and in line with your own moral compass). That being said, a few things to consider:

  1. I would not jump ship before University B explicitly makes an offer, simply because you need to know what your alternative situation would look like (whether at University B or elswhere) should you decide NOT to join University A.
  2. You are starting a tenure track. In a way, that makes the whole legislation surrounding tenure a "future" problem. All other things being equal, you could have a very successful 5-7 (however long it takes at University A) tenure track and be a highly attractive candidate for other places to hire at that point, your tenure track may turn out to be less successful for totally other (because science) reasons (knock on would that that won't happen, of course), etc. Impossible to predict what the world and your personal position will look like so many years from now (because who would have predicted today's world in 2015).
  3. That makes the DEI legislation a much more "current" issue. In addition to what your own moral compass says about that, have you discussed this with others from a purely scientific/practical perspective as to how it would affect your research? Which grants would you no longer be eligible for? How does that interfere with your plans? Can University A compensate for that by changing the start up? And if money could solve this problem, how does that feel for you from a moral compass perspective?

From what you describe (in your questions and answers to other comments) it seems as if you are on good standing with your potentially future department at University A. I would definitely voice these things as concern if you can, because they should understand your struggle, I'd think.

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  • These are good points. For #1 I agree. #2: This is also true, research labs live and die by grants, so tenure is not directly important for a successful research lab, however this will (and already has) have a strong impact on recruitment (and not just mine). What I did not put in the question was that one of the reasons i was keen on Uni A was the dept is expanding a lot (TX is funding the unis a lot), which is now abrogated by this bill. #3 is an very-relevant open question but i added a link to the post from the UT AAUP speaking to this.
    – idfkwtd
    Jun 16, 2023 at 11:49
  • As for speaking with A, I did contact the chairs (search and dept) before the bills passed, and was given assurances they will not pass (so, optimism...). Now that I'm considering backing out I've been advised (correctly or incorrectly) not to contact them until the way forward is more clear. If B doesn't offer its a moot point beyond how i work with the changes. If B offers, as you note i could try re-negotiating. however my worry is this is simply the vanguard of a continued legislative axe to grind against higher ed in this state and "getting out wile i still can" may be the best option.
    – idfkwtd
    Jun 16, 2023 at 11:50
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While I can't offer any kind of advice on whether or not there will be any legal blowback of backing out of a signed contract, the morality of the situation is quite clear, and one doesn't even need to explicitly express any kind of political opinion to see its absolute validity:

Institution A has offered you a position, and it offers you benefits x, y, z, etc. Your acceptance of this position is heavily dependent on benefit x. It is the case that benefit x is so sought-after and attractive that nearly all eligible candidates would not pursue this career choice without it, as it is the only benefit capable of offsetting the numerous downsides of the career path. For whatever reason, benefit x is now no longer on the table, and will not be offered.

From here, it should be pretty obvious that you are under no moral obligation to take this job, regardless of what you insert for benefit x. The conditions of employment have changed, the results being equivalent to that of a potential employer who has given you a bait and switch (even though, as you have pointed out, they are not responsible for what's happened here). And it should be obvious that the hiring committee of Institution A has no good reason to hold anything against you: they understand this proof quite well, being professors themselves. If Institution B has offered you a job with benefit x, you take it.

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Just (privately) examine your conscience here.

Ask yourself if it's the changes in the tenure situation at UoA that is at the heart of your sense that the appointment offered to you has been changed significantly or if it is more from fear of the consequences of the DEI bill - which you seem to think will seriously affect UoA's candidacy for many funding opportunities in your area of research.

If it's the latter, you better engage immediately with the Chair at your UoA department and explain your concerns for funding security in the future. Were his/her response to this be unconvincing, I think that should be your cue for withdrawing. I see no need to add in the changes to the tenure status in prospect at UoA as an additional reason for withdrawl.

But if your concern is mainly about the re-definition of tenure - and keep in mind that TT positions do not guarantee a future tenured position anyway - then I feel you would be foolish to turn down an otherwise attractive job on this ground alone. (I'm saying it's attractive to you as you have already accepted their offer before the new State of Texas laws - I am assuming that you didn't accept just because it was a vacant job and a plausible "step forward".)

It hardly needs saying that, in academia as in every other arena of life, over 2/3 of the job is about a shared commitment with the group of people in that job. Get that down right and you're in a job for as long as that department exists. The changes to tenure and DEI are things that will affect everyone in that department at UoA - everyone is in it together and this is something that should ingender much closer cooperation among faculty and across colleges in the university.

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The ethical aspects are, of course, complex. Ignoring the specifics, I point out that the uni has changed the effective contract after you accepted it, so from my point of view, the uni is in breach of the contract.

You might want to check with a lawyer, but in the US it's nearly impossible to enforce a contract against an employee in a way to compel them to continue working for the employer. Also, any lawsuit would have to be pursued in TX courts, and if you're not in TX yourself, there's really no way for the uni to compel you to answer a lawsuit.

The more "interesting" part is whether the other university will hold this against you. My guess is no, but I don't know anything. Then again, whether you can get offered that job may not affect your rejection of the TX job.

An alternative strategy would be to take the TX job but intend to job-hunt for a proper tenured position next year. In that strategy, TX making hash of tenure isn't salient.

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    The alternative strategy is very foolish. You are advocating that OP accept a position he has lost belief in so he can immediately (?) start looking for one he sees as having a brighter future. Suppose he applied to UoC next year. "Prof X, we see that you are only 6 months into your current appointment - why do you want to leave UoA so soon after joining them ? Why ever did you join them in the first place ? How do we know that you are sincere in the reasons you give for joining our department ?"
    – Trunk
    Jun 17, 2023 at 14:13
  • I think it can be argued that the terms of the offer materially changed. Both parties entered in good faith, but the institution (Texas) changed the structure of the position. I don't think the employee can be compelled to work, non-compete, etc. when the employer changed the previously agreed to position.
    – sh314
    Jun 21, 2023 at 2:03

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