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The Ethics of Backing Out

Written by: Karen Kelsky
Published on: Mar 12, 2018

I just accepted a (renewable) one-year gig as a lecturer. It’s not a great job by any means — the salary is just sad, but it is a full-time job with benefits. I am anxious, though, that I am missing out on better opportunities. In my field, some of the tenure-track searches I applied to are still in full swing. Am I now obligated to withdraw from those searches and try my luck on the tenure-track market next fall?

First of all, congratulations on the job. And yet, your concerns are completely understandable. You don’t want to take your hat out of the ring for something that is neither lucrative nor offers job security.

This being the height of negotiation season I get people asking me some variation of this question all the time. They’ve accepted a teaching position but are wondering: How ethically committed am I to this job that — for whatever reason — I am not excited about?

The answer is murky and depends on the nature of the position.

For example, it is generally considered unethical to renege on your acceptance of a tenure-track offer. In such cases, the stakes are high for a department. If its top candidate backs out late in the game, its second and third picks already may have taken jobs elsewhere. Unless the institution’s human-resources protocol allows the search committee to dip back into the candidate pool, your change of heart is likely to result in a failed search. And the department may even lose the line.

I’ve worked with many a client in such nail-biting situations, waiting for news on the outcome of another search or on a potentially superior counteroffer — news that won’t come in until after the deadline for accepting an offer in hand. Such clients want to know if they can ethically say yes and then back out if the offer they really want comes through. As I always tell them: It’s frowned upon but you would not be the first or the last person in the history of academe to do it.

If it sounds like I’m equivocating, that’s because I am.

It’s definitely underhanded to back out of a tenure-track job because a better one came along, but it’s not illegal. Whether or not you decide to do it hinges ultimately on your own personal code of ethics and on the timing. Backing out within a day or two is not as bad as backing out weeks or months later, which is really unacceptable for the reasons I’ve already mentioned: You have basically destroyed the department’s chances of filling the position this year. Likewise, it is somewhat less sketchy to renege on a verbal agreement than on a signed contract.

There are also further gradations here. It’s more reasonable to look out for No. 1 when the department has engaged in questionable hiring practices that are more self-interested than ethical. Say, for instance, the department has tried to lock down the candidates very early in the hiring season — a popular strategy with lower-ranked departments. They try to pressure their top choice into a commitment, knowing they would not be competitive for the top candidates later in the season when the higher-ranked departments start making offers.

Another example is when departments give ridiculously short deadlines for accepting a job offer and refuse to budge. It is standard good practice in academe to give candidates 10 to 14 days to mull a job offer, and anything less than a week is inappropriate. (I had a client who was given 48 hours to respond to a job offer.) Departments that try to hurry a decision are clearly doing so to minimize the likelihood that the candidate will use the offer as leverage somewhere else — perhaps to push the timeline on another search, to secure a different offer, or to obtain a counteroffer.

In such situations, candidates who’ve said yes will rightly feel less obligated to the department and less hesitant to back out.

The ethical murkiness disappears entirely, however, when the job you’ve accepted is part-time, one-year, or otherwise contingent — and a tenure-track offer comes your away. You absolutely can — and should — back out of the nontenure-track position and take the tenure-track one.

I repeat: There is nothing unethical about reneging on a temporary, contingent position to accept a tenure-track offer.

No one should begrudge you that (they might anyway, but if they do, they’re wrong). In this case, the two jobs are categorically different — like the proverbial apples and oranges, or more like apples and gold-plated oranges. It’s not about preferring one institution over another, or wanting a higher salary. It’s about choosing an opportunity for permanent employment over one in which your future on the campus is precarious and contingent on annual budgets and administrative whims.

Remember: All colleges and universities have the option of prioritizing tenure-track lines. Campus administrators just choose not to do so because they value the cost savings from NTT positions (nontenure-track) and the power they have over those precarious employees. Do not feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to sustain the irresponsible and short-sighted priorities of institutions.

Now, if the question is whether it’s ethical to back out of one NTT position in order to accept another, better NTT position — that is a bit less clear cut. Here, too, though, I would tend to side with the candidate, based once again on the principle that institutions that insist on replacing secure positions with insecure ones do not merit your personal self-sacrifice.

Reading that, you may be experiencing that guilt/codependency thing that academe is so good at instilling, as it obfuscates the clear lines between capitalist relations and personal relations by mystifying the nature of academic labor. I urge you to remain clear-eyed about who’s got the real power here.

Also, keep in mind that one-year lectureships and visiting positions are unlikely to disappear as an employment option, in the way that tenure-track lines do. One-year gigs are limited expenditures allotted to fill a specific short-term teaching need. Students are already registered for the courses you were supposed to cover, so if you back out now, chances are, the department can do a quick search to get someone to take your place. Because of the ratio of Ph.D.s to jobs, even at the end of the hiring season there are plenty of candidates who struck out on the market and will be willing to take a last-minute, one-year position. Your decision to renege here doesn’t hurt anyone in any real way.

So if the offer you have in hand is not on the tenure track, don’t lose any sleep over this. And absolutely do not withdraw from any tenure-track searches. Go on campus visits if you are invited. And if you get a tenure-track offer, you should have zero compunction about taking it.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .