Ethics of leaving a college teaching job near the start of the semester?
August 8, 2011 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I agreed to take a teaching job at certain community college, and now, just two weeks away from the beginning of the semester, it looks like a much better job is about to come through for me. What are the ethical considerations of backing out?

I have been applying for positions at various community colleges, and got a string of rejection letters and one job offer, which I took. It's a tiny, underfunded school in a rural area, where the most advanced technology in the classrooms is a chalkboard. But my wife was laid off and I was working part-time, so we had to say yes to it. I thought (given how tight the academic job market is) that probably no other offers will come through, but now I am on the short list for a much better position at another college: large, urban, better salary, better teaching load, modern facilities, more interesting course content. If it comes though, it will be much, much better for me and my family, and could led to even better positions in the future.

Although I have been an adjunct for a while, I haven't taught full-time before, so I'm not that familiar with the inner workings of college hiring processes. What I want to know is, how much of a bind will I put Countyside Community College in if I take the position at Big City College just 10 days before the semester begins? I know there are a lot of people out there looking for teaching work, so they could certainly get someone, but that's not much time to look. How often do things like this happen? Will I be seen as an enormous jerk, or just another guy who got a job he couldn't turn down?

For what it's worth, I haven't signed a contract yet (Countyside is very casual about getting paperwork done), so that's not a factor, but I don't want to be inconsiderate of their needs. On the other hand, I don't know how long it will be before I'm on the shortlist for Big City College again, and I hate to let the opportunity slip. My final interview before they choose someone to offer the position is this week.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you haven't signed a contract you can back out. Don't complain if you don't get the other job though and you're left with nothing.
posted by joannemullen at 3:19 PM on August 8, 2011

I taught for many years as a part-timer at the community college level. When I quit, I quit in mid-semester and everyone pretty much took it in stride, including the guy who was very happy to be bumped from a part-timer to a temporary full-timer in order to cover my classes. My bridges were so un-burned that I have been invited back since then to cover classes.

Again in my experience, which was in a large department that offered a lot of sections of identical classes, staffing was often still going on right up to the week before classes started. It might be different in a department that has only a few faculty and offers fewer courses.

That said, everybody in the world understands that sometimes better jobs come along. If you get the better job, the department will either hire someone on short notice, have another faculty member cover the first week of classes, or solve the problem some other way. They've certainly done it before.
posted by not that girl at 3:28 PM on August 8, 2011

Are you sure that Big School is hiring for the fall semester too? It's mighty late to be hiring for the fall.

You certainly could get away with accepting a job for the spring. Accepting a job for the fall would screw over Community College. You do what you have to, but it would leave them scrambling badly.

Is your current position continuing/tenure track? Is the possible one?
posted by leahwrenn at 3:31 PM on August 8, 2011

Countyside Community College will definitely be put in a bind if you decline at such a late date. But the size of their problem is kind of dependent on what you were hired to teach. Are you one of the few people with the background to teach whatever it was they hired you for? (I actually was the only one with the background to teach what I was hired for, out of the pool of candidates for my job, so it does happen.) Is there anyone else in the department with a similar skillset? Do they have a robust adjunct list? You might not know the answers to these questions, of course, but these are the things that would indicate their ability to fill your shoes.

Ten days before the semester begins is pretty damn tight, but it doesn't have to be a huge deal. Heck, I've been assigned classes that technically had already started. And at the very worst, they could just cancel those classes. If their enrollment process is online, you could look and see how many students were signed up for the courses you were going to be teaching. If the numbers were low, those sections may have been canceled anyway.

It's my philosophy that in situations like this that your responsibility to yourself and your family comes before your responsibility to your employer (or future employer). As long as you are as polite as possible in your explanation, I don't see how it could be your problem what happens afterward.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:28 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Take the full time.
Everyone will understand.
Everyone knows that they would do the same thing in your shoes (and everyone will think you're nuts if you don't).

Any department chair worth their salt will have a list of people itching to take your spot.
posted by Murray M at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hell, I'd tell you to take the other job mid-semester. The CC not having money to attract replacement faculty isn't your fault or problem. This sort of thing happens plenty; if they wanted long-term contracts they'd offer them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:38 PM on August 8, 2011

From the OP:
To clarify a few points:
1) Both are full-time, permanent positions, although the one at the rural college has less of a certain future because our state legislature nearly pulled their funding and shut it down this year. I wouldn't be surprised if they were on the chopping block next year.

2) I would be the only person at Countryside teaching my subject (speech). If they don't replace me, or find several adjuncts, there won't be any speech classes, which is, of course, a non-starter.

3) I know that at least two other people were on the Countryside short list at one point, and they told me they had a "slew of applicants," which I don't doubt. I assume that someone fairly high on their list would still be looking for a job, but I can't know that for sure.

4) Yes, the urban school is definitely hiring for the fall. The previous faculty member passed away recently, and they want to replace him right away.

I really don't want to put Countryside in a bind, but I don't want to miss out on a better opportunity, either.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:02 PM on August 8, 2011

I have served on academic hiring committees, and if I'd been on Countryside's hiring committee I wouldn't hesitate to advise you to renege. By pulling out you'll be putting them in a bind, yes. But the stakes in this matter are so, so, so much higher than you than they are for the department. You're weighing a temporary administrative annoyance for them against a major career hit in a brutal job market for you and your family. You and your family win.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 PM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

You will be causing a significant amount of difficulty for the college you're leaving without an instructor, and depending on the pool of adjuncts, you may also be forcing them to cancel the classes you'd be teaching. So its not just the admin, it is the students who may bear the burden of your decision.

You should be up front with the department chair that there is an emerging situation that may force you to have to delay your start date. That way, the staff can start to identify replacements, should they need them.

I am not saying not to take the better job, but just don't convince yourself it's not a big deal unless you know it isn't.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:12 PM on August 8, 2011

I'm with escabeche on this one. The stakes are so much higher for you. Countryside will find another person from the slew of applicants (who will be super grateful) - for them it's a pain in the ass but just a temporary administrative one. They will have forgotten about you in a year. For you it's your life.

As an academic who has seen people come and go at all stages in their careers, let me tell you - academic institutions thrive on misplaced loyalty. I've seen faculty members who have been told over & over that they're "indispensable" get dropped, ignored, and mistreated. The institution does not care about you. Sure, it might mean a student doesn't get a class he/she wants this semester. But their temporary annoyance at this is again not nearly as great as the personal consequences for you.

Of course, this is assuming you actually get an offer, right?
posted by media_itoku at 8:32 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a professor at a college like these. I've not yet been on hiring committee.

It's, at worst, a one year disruption for them. However, it's probably not even a one semester problem. There is without a doubt someone on their list of applicants who will be willing to take your old spot in less than one week's notice. (Imagine that you were their number 2 option and they called you in 4 or 5 days. Wouldn't you take that super-late offer from countryside? And wouldn't you almost certainly feel completely grateful?) The academic market in most fields sucks, there is plenty of labor for them to tap into.

It is, as others have said, a huge deal for you. The difference in course work, setting and pay rate that you describe are not trivial. Many academics would switch jobs for an upgrade in just one of those elements. You'll have an upgrade in all three. Yahtzee!
(Also, if you are offered the job at the Urban CC and stay at Countryside, you'll resent the school, your students and your colleagues until you get out. That's no fun, and it's not fair to them.)

I would say nothing to Countryside until you've got a contract from Urban CC in hand. There is no need to poison the well unless you know you are definitely leaving. (I've been on shortlists, more than one. Being on the shortlist is certainly not the same as getting a job offer.) If you need or want to offer a justification beyond the better opportunity of the Urban campus you can use the threat of defunding (which is non-trivial and should make you consider applying for other jobs even if you end-up taking the Countryside job).

I was going to suggest offering to teach a section or two on-line in the fall, if they can't find replacement. But given their resources and the nature of a speech course, this seems infeasible.

(BTW, I assume that both jobs are tenure track. If only the Countryside job is ternure-track that might change things a bit. I also assume that you would know if the Urban job is just a one year gig (this is a common stop-gap used to find a temporary replacement in a hurry and that allows the department to do a full search in the coming year. )
posted by oddman at 9:57 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
Thanks for the input, everyone. It really helped me think through things. I was offered and accepted the position at Big City College today, and notified Countryside Community College right away that I won't be able to teach for them after all. I still feel a bit torn, but ultimately the impact of a better salary and more secure job for my family's future, and the impact of a much more rewarding job on my mental health won out. I happened to meet a Countryside faculty member tonight who heard my story and told me I had done exactly the right thing, and that the college would have no difficulty finding someone else for the job, which helped further ease my mind. Thanks so much for your perspectives. I am very excited about my new position!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:27 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yay, a happy ending!
posted by oddman at 9:24 AM on August 11, 2011

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