What to do when recruitment promises evaporate?

Nov 06 2009 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism

As I have noted before, if there is one modal complaint of the newly hired Assistant Professor in the laboratory sciences...

...(i)t boils down to a failure of the hiring University to live up to the spirit (and even letter) of what was promised during the recruiting phase. The space that magically becomes "shared space". The startup funds that get reduced or restricted. The surprises that one is supposed to pay for "out of your startup". The new building renovations that are slow, "Oh just use this temporary space for now" becomes "Well, you have a lab we promised that to the next sucker". Etc. The excuse is almost always "The dean won't go for it", "The dean denied it" and the like while the Chair insists s/he went to the mat for you. Everyone has problems doncha know....

This brings me to today's edition of "Ask DrugMonkey".

Or, more accurately, "Ask the DrugMonkey Blog BrainTrust" which is otherwise known as you, DearReader.
I received the following note:

As a result of your readership population at Drugmonkey being skewed toward the "Assistant Prof" ranking, I wonder if you're amenable to posting an anonymous question from this Assistant Professor regarding how best to handle hostile department chairs.
Very briefly-- I negotiated a startup package last spring in an amicable way with the old chair; The new chair acts as if the written and signed documents outlining the startup package aren't worth the paper they're written on and that jr. faculty don't deserve 'big' startup packages in general. [I know] another professor ... who has had the same problem. So far we've both decided 'not to start a fight with the department chair.'

My thought is quite simple. If you have signed documents*, it was part of your recruiting package and the reneging is over substantive stuff (when is it not?) then you have to go to the mat on this. This is the ONLY time you have this sort of leverage over the institution, even the senior Prof with competing offer in hand may not have this amount of power. The institution has just begged you to come through the recruiting process, after that it is all down hill, baby. You are asking them for permission to stay (more or less).
So I'm thinking this new hire starts the process of fighting back by first politely indicating to the new chair that s/he expects the promises to be upheld, recruiting friendly senior faculty to assist if possible and ultimately taking it up the ranks. What think you?
*one big question is about who does the signing. As I mentioned in my prior post (I think) it is an old trick for the Chair to promise all kinds of stuff...only to have it turn out that the Chair really has no formal authority to promise anything on the behalf of the University. Everything must be signed by some sort of Dean or other senior administrator on behalf of the University.

5 responses so far

  • JAT says:

    I am at a large State university with nine month appointment. I am responsible for my summer salary but "not supposed" to pay for my nine month salary...it is written in my signed contract. Guess what? I have to pay up to 70% of my nine month salary depending how many grants I have at a given time (not restricted to RO1 or PO1 or any government money). Funny, money is money when they want it, but it is only good money if it is from RO1 and PO1 when it comes to time for tenure and promotion. Carving out an unanticipated portion of the grant to pay my academic salary started out at the departmental level (encouraging word from my chair...show good faith to the university). Then it becomes an unwritten rule at the university level. Do I at least get a portion of salary release back to run the lab? Heck no. Let's not even go there with the start-up package. Swim or sink..that is the motto. My university is certainly not the only one playing this game. I suppose I should not bitch and moan about it as I am still swimming, and I have heard much worse and heart breaking stories.
    I learned over the years that it really does not matter who does the signing. They always have some excuses. One can fight it, but you know it will not sit well in a long run... unless you end up doing exceedingly well, bringing mega bucks to the school...then it just might turn out even.

  • if there is one modal

    Dude, by definition there is one modal whatthefuckever.
    This "new chair/old chair" shit is a motherfucking nightmare, especially in medical schools or other contexts where chairs have real power, and are given "dowries" to support start-up packages and space for hiring faculty. This is because a chair's success in these contexts is defined in large part by the success of their hires.
    The corollary is that a new chair is much less invested in the success of junior faculty hired by her predecessor than of junior faculty she hired herself. As a practical matter, this means that a new chair has an incentive to shift allocation of resources away from junior faculty hired by a previous chair in favor of those she hires herself.
    I have heard credible stories of new chairs doing things like forcing junior faculty with single modular R01s to put 50% or more of their salary on that single R01. This is as explicit as it gets that the goal of the new chair is to bleed you dry and kick you to the curb, as with 50% of medical school junior faculty salary on a single modular R01, there is insufficient funds remaining to actually do the science.
    Bottom line: What to do in the situation described in the e-mail inquiry depends heavily on what kind of situation the writer is in. Is she in a no-power chair situation, where the chair is just a douchebag and/or is being squeezed from above to reduce expenses? Or is she in a power-chair situation where the chair has a positive incentive to reduce expenditure of resources on her behalf on an ongoing continuous basis?
    If the former, then by all means fight the good fight and enlist allies, escalate to higher levels as necessary, etc. If the latter, then serious consideration must be given to getting the fuck out sooner rather than later and seeking a more hospitable environment.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    I'd just like to point out that in many recent cases, the old chair got moved on and the new chair got appointed because the old chair gave out more startup money than the department actually has...

  • A Reader says:

    I reluctantly have to agree with Comrade's last point. In the situation described by the letter writer, my advice would be to immediately start seeking another job. There is no good way out. You fight the fight and have a department head that is looking forward to not supporting your tenure (in which case you are gone), or you suck it up and deal with getting screwed, in which case you'd be better off with a different job anyway.
    It's not clear from the letter (or posted excerpt) whether the letter writer has moved yet. If he (or she) hasn't, he should absolutely not move. If the letter writer has already moved, he should focus on getting an R01 ASAP. As soon as that fundable score is in, he should not be shy about applying elsewhere and letting anyone & everyone know he has an R01 and wants to move. The letter writer should not be shy about revealing that the new dept head reneged on the contract if someone asks about the reason for the hasty move. These things happen. Sometimes you get screwed by colleagues. It happens to everyone at one time or another. The only important thing is to not let it defeat you. Accept it, deal with it, but move on ASAP.

  • I reluctantly have to agree with Comrade's last point.

    Dude, you know you love agreeing with me.

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