I am an assistant professor on a year-to-year contract in academic med (I'm a PhD biostatistician). I just signed a new contract in July. I have been 'head hunted' to join a private company, and I am seriously considering it. What do I 'owe' in terms of my contact? I get the feeling the contact is more to protect the faculty member from the university and not the other way around, right? I would not be leaving until the spring, so 4-5 months notice. I dont have any teaching duties. Can I just give notice?
The only real recourse that they would have is to sue you for breaking the contract. Although that's possible, chances are that they wouldn't be able to prove substantial damages and that even if they prevailed you wouldn't have enough assets to make the suit worth while. This is why academics who break their contracts are seldom sued for breach of contract.
However, depending on how you do this you might end up losing any chance at a positive reference from your former employer. This is probably the biggest risk that you face.
It usually depends on which country and state you live in. However in the academic world we are almost always flexible, especially if you give plenty of notice where the department will be able to get someone in to cover for you. Really what you need to do is talk with HR. They are very discreet about this sort of thing and will tell you your options. If you're in a union then you can also talk to your rep who will be discreet.
You can leave your contract. Usually, there will be a notice period that you'll have to comply to, so you should see if you can find that information on the HR website if you have access.
There aren't (or shouldn't be) legal repercussions in leaving a contract, it's (generally) the same as leaving an on-going position. However, this is not a guarantee and will vary from place to place, country to country etc. Get familiar with your HR policies concerning what breaking a contract entails. It could be as simple as just complying to the notice period, which is what mine was.
I had a year contract that I'm leaving in two weeks after only being on it for 6 months, something better came along. My notice period was a month. No biggie.
I've shifted to a one-day a week to see out teaching while I start research at another institute. But I don't have to see out the teaching, I've chosen to do this so as not to leave my school in the lurch, and both employers were happy to accommodate the new arrangements.
The general consensus (at least in my experience in academia) is that you take the opportunities you are offered, even if it means breaking a current contract.