Lucky Lucy wonders: can I break my agreement to return after sabbatical?

elvgrenmailHowdy, friends!  Historiann opened her mailbag this afternoon and found a question from a tenured, early mid-career humanist.  She’d really appreciate your advice and assistance with her situation, which involves a job offer received while on sabbatical:

Dear Historiann,

I’m on sabbatical this year and have been offered another job!  My question is about the “repayment” of one’s sabbatical year. I signed something saying that I owed my current employer a year of work after my sabbatical. Some very knowledgeable people have told me that those clauses are rarely enforced or enforceable, but a colleague of mine who used to be employed at another university tells me they routinely sued people who didn’t return after a sabbatical.

So first, I’m wondering what your readers’ experiences are: do they know of faculty members who just left without repayment, or who were forced to return for a year–or was there some compromise or workaround? And second, I’d love advice on how to handle this clause in any possible negotiations with either party. It seems to weaken my bargaining position with both my current employer (they know I have to stay, at least for a year, and might be less willing to better my position) and my prospective employer (they’d be passing up a bird in the hand).

Sorry to vomit that stress all over you. It’s been an anxious several weeks. But I’d really love any thoughts or advice your readers have for me.


Lucky (not Lawsuit) Lucy

Sneakin' out!

Sneakin’ out!

Congratulations, Lucy!  This is a happy problem to have.  I don’t know about how well those agreements we all sign hold up in court–I’ve never known anyone to challenge the legality of these agreements or the wills of their administrators to enforce them.  So I’m throwing this one wide open to the readers:  what do you think?  How would you advise a colleague?  What have you heard about people flying the coop, hitting the bricks, or singing “Happy Trails to You” after a sabbatical without returning for that obligatory year?  Does it go down on their permanent records?

Why do universities make us sign these agreements, anyway?  They typically require six full years of service before we’re permitted to take a sabbatical, implying that sabbaticals are contingent on service provided rather than future service.  So why this requirement on the back end?  And why, when most of us get only one semester at full pay or a year at half-pay, do they make us sign agreements that require a full year of service upon return?  (If they’re only paying for half our sabbaticals, then it strikes me that one semester is all our employers are entitled to, if they’re entitled to anything.)

I’d love to hear from any of you who can shed light on these tricks, and so would Lucy!




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23 thoughts on “Lucky Lucy wonders: can I break my agreement to return after sabbatical?

  1. I think those “agreements” are probably contractually enforceable. As to whether or how they *are* enforced, the terms “rarely” and “routinely” are probably far to imprecise to be helpful. Too bad that Robert Townsend didn’t put his sharp statistical knife into this one for the AHA before he moved on, but probably even raising the issue there would have been seen as reinforcing the image of faculties as being almost as selfish and unreliable as, say, college head football coaches. Which gets closer to the heart of the matter. If Auburn wanted you to come and diagram defensive schemes, the word “buyout” would be right there in the contract, and they are routinely arranged in that context.

    Since its doubtful that the offer would merely be held open for the year, to enforce by definition means to put someone who is likely to be unhappy forever in front of the classroom, but maybe they don’t care about that. I would guess that a lot of places would settle for a meaningful but perhaps not unworkable partial return of the salary, which would almost have to be done over time, and which might be treated as another round of student loans. It’s doubtful whether they could try to recover other supposed “damages,” such as the costs of searching to replace a defector.

    It really is time to get agents involved in the game. If NCAA players *do* unionize, maybe some coaches will get dragged back to finish out their shoe deals.



    A lot depends on the personality of the dean and the chair. If they are nasty, they’ll get nasty. If they are nice, they might not.

    A lot also depends on what has gone on at that particular institution before.

    I’ve seen this be unenforced and enforced at the same institution IN THE SAME YEAR. This is why I’d gamble on the personality of the players.

    But, I’ve also seen a lot of buyouts recently. The new school buys out the time owed.

    I’d love to know this works out.


  3. Personal advise by some maven should be avoided. Proper advise sought from lawyers that have experience in the area and are familiar with the “betrayed” university.

    We all know our own universities, but it really make absolutely no difference. The comment about the dean may be wrong. Legal actions are initiated by the university’s legal department, which is typically under the president. In other words, deans may ask, demand or stamp their feet, but it’s the higher up that make the decision.


  4. Usually I side with employees over employers, but I can see both sides of this one. The sabbatical gets earned by past service, yes, but it also looks to the future. Lucy’s employer wants and maybe deserves bragging rights for the scholarship it can attribute (in part) to Lucy’s time off with pay. Similar reasoning governs pre-retirement sabbaticals. People often don’t get theirs when they’re a couple of years from the pasture.

    As for what to do: my sense is the hard bargain is rarely enforced. But not never, as MPG says. If I were Lucy I’d offer to stay one extra semester, which probably corresponds to the cash value of the sabbatical as Historiann notes. With any luck the decider will conclude that midyear separation + rancor + hassle isn’t worth claiming and will wish Lucy well in her new job.


  5. Someone at my university was compelled to pay back all of the salary she earned during her sabbatical (maybe benefits too). I don’t know why the university to which she went (for a chair) did not simply delay her arrival by a semester.

    My own opinion is that it is OK to have the rule on the books but bad to enforce it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I did this. I was offered a job at my husband’s institution in another state. I loved my old job but…well…we’d been commuting for 15 years. It was important to me that I leave on the good terms with my old university (you may have a different experience)

    My new dean was willing to wait a semester for me. So, I negotiated teaching for a semester at my old uni and then left mid-year.

    The year of service clause probably wasn’t enforceable (and my old admin knew it). However, since I was able to stay a semester it allowed them time to run a good search for a replacement. My new dean also agreed to my continuing to oversee two honors projects at my old uni.


  7. Thanks, everyone. This is all very helpful. I don’t doubt the level of personal generosity or animus involved in the enforcement (or non-enforcement) of these agreements that MPG reports. This is why Koshembos’s and truffula’s admonishments are so important: check with people who know (union reps or attorneys, or both, as appropriate) and don’t make any moves or annoucements unless and until you have consulted with them.

    polisciprof’s graceful exit seems like a strong model to follow, if you can. It’s not all bad to go back for one semester; in this case, Lucy could bask in the well-wishes and farewell parties thrown her by colleagues and friends, tie up outstanding issues at Former University, and leave with a clear conscience for Future U.

    I’m still dubious about the purpose of these agreements. They just seem paranoid and punative, when anyone who’s acquainted with the academic job market of the past 45 years will understand that we’ve got all of the paranoia and punishment we can reasonably handle. It’s like an artifact from a distant time when it was possible (if not entirely common) to move at mid-career.


  8. I’ve had colleagues pile on extra courses and summer teaching to make up courses owed before departing, others delay start dates at the new instituion, while still others were able to convince their new employers to “buy out” time owed for sabbatical or fellowship leave. Each deal was negotiated independently, and themoutcome (like almost all initial contracts) depended on the willingness of the two employers to play ball and, of course!, the ability of the professor to negotiate the best possible deal.


  9. Gack. Forgot to confess that even though I’ve been at a Big State School and a Private R1, I’ve never been anywhere with a union! I’m storing the advice here.

    Also, as Ellie suggests, chairs may have latitude to devise a workaround. Two classes over the summer, for instance.


  10. I’m late to this party, but I have some experience with this situation, and can offer a firm “depends” response.

    As a law professor I cannot recommend that you violate the terms of your agreement. But I have also found that negotiation often produces a good outcome. In my experience there are several possible options:

    If your department/institution is happy for you to leave, no problemo. This is more common than you might imagine, though I make no assumptions about your situation. It could be simply that you’re a specialist on Han toe nail painting, and they’d like to develop their program in water rights, so everyone wins.

    The institution offering you a position can reimburse your current institution for one year of salary — assuming that you were required to return for a year. This is also common, though you may be reluctant to propose it; your dean might, dean-to-dean.

    Less common is the demand that you, yourself, reimburse your current institution for a year of salary, but it’s been known to happen.

    Finally, a heart-to-heart with your department chair and dean might produce a sympathetic response in which they agree to waive any penalty. The requirement that you return from a sabbatical to teach for a year was often used to discourage people from visiting a place while on a sabbatical with hopes of landing a job offer there — if that was not what happened to you, your chair/dean might take an understanding position that you were not trying to scam the system, and shouldn’t have to turn down a nice offer. Try it.

    In any event, congratulations on the offer — a rare commodity these days! Barbara


  11. My partner was in this situation when she left for a new job 7 years ago. Old U insisted on the sabbatical salary repayment. But old dean was very supportive, and so she ended up sabbatical a semester early (after the fall) and simply took unpaid leave in the spring (which reduced by half the amount she would have had to repay, and which was fortunately possible with our household budget). New U repaid the money up front, and she paid back New U by salary deduction over the first year. We were mightily irked by this arrangement, but appreciate the deanly cooperation that made it possible.

    I have seen many colleagues delay the start of their arrival by a semester or year, so that’s worth asking about (assuming the delay is personally workable).


  12. Speaking with the dean at your current U is a good place to start. The U that’s made you the offer should be aware that this transition will take a little bit of time and maybe some concessions on their part. Don’t delay, however, as your new offer will necessitate a lot of accommodation, one way or another, at your former institution.

    (I know more than one academic who has successfully negotiated a new job on the heels of a sabbatical and a cooperative, calm attitude toward negotiation always seems to have been key to making this happen.)


  13. I’ve seen this happen with two colleagues. In both cases our dean required that they buy out their classes (only a semester) at adjunct wages. Since we only have one semester sabbaticals, we’re only talking 2 classes. In one of the cases the dean tried to get the new school to buy out the person’s sabbatical but new school refused. So the person just quit mid-year. In the other case the person was hired too late in the year so they paid $10K to the dean and all was handled that way. It was never nasty but our dean was also not letting anyone off the hook.


  14. Liz2: thanks for this data point, but I have to have a tantrum now (not at you, at the information you bring us.)

    What’s the point of this idiotic behavior??? Especially if the people resigning are only having to buy out their own damn courses at adjunct rates? That seems both cheesy and vindictive. And it makes your uni look like some two-bit state college who’s never had anyone resign for a better job, or something.

    I still haven’t seen any truly compelling reason for us to have to keep signing these stupid agreements. If we dropped dead in July or August after our sabbaticals, would our estate be expected to reimburse our unis for our courses? If we were severely injured or had to undergo extensive chemotherapy, would we have to PAY our own unis for the privilege of sick leave?

    This is just crazy. Life happens. Grow up and grow a pair.


  15. Good analysis, Historiann. Although I very much take LadyProf’s points way upthread, about the complex equities involved in the ecology of extended paid time “off” in a sabbatical environment, it in some ways seems to describe the old world of academia in which administrators were faculty members too who rotated temporarily into the (tiny) adminisphere, served as faculty advocates while there, and expected to return to the *groves* of academe, before they became “trenches.” In the new “just-in-time inventory control” approach to the industry, places that can even imagine themselves being voted “best places to work” in their category probably don’t want to guard their staff flocks with legalistic manacles and blockhouses. If somebody gets hired upstream while on sabbatical, brag about it and try to do better. When students began taking Wednesday nights off to “pregame” for the Thursday night start of the weekend, the rhetoric became about “retention.” Maybe faculty retention should be done with incentives rather than sanctions. I go back and forth on this.


  16. Barbara Piper is exactly right on this, and I would emphasize: this is not actually Lucy’s problem, so she should not even try to solve it herself. It is a problem to be negotiated between the two institutions. The institution she is leaving has plenty of time to hire a visitor, or 3-6 highly exploited adjuncts, thus saving them gobs of $$.

    I would ask the provost’s office at the new uni to work this out with the provost’s office at the old uni. Then I would crack open the Champagne!!


  17. At my former university, the rule was handed down by the Legislature. That was the reason it was there, and the reason we had to sign it. Whether or not it has grown fangs since then, I don’t know.


  18. I had been led to understand that my little lib. arts school required a full year of service after return from sabbatical. In fact, the Faculty Handbook required only one semester after sabbatical completion. Since I’d opted for the half-year at full pay sabbatical, and since I was gone for fall semester only, and since I returned to teach in the spring, I was free to go at the conclusion of that academic year.

    Upshot: don’t just go on what colleagues report; check your faculty handbook for the exact wording.

    Epilogue: I ended up staying.


  19. In my case, I never signed any sabbatical contract that I had to return for one year after my sabbatical. But the Faculty Handbook states that I must return for one year after the sabbatical or return the money made during the leave.
    Is a faculty handbook legally binding in this case?


  20. Bob, I’d consult an employment lawyer in your area, preferably one who has experience with the legal team at your university. I’d say that in theory the Handbook policy is legally binding, but realistically, is your university going to track you down and sue you for this if you leave w/o the year payback? I don’t know–I’M NOT AN ATTORNEY–please see one if you’re thinking about skipping town!

    I resent these policies that make us wait (and WORK) for six years to qualify for a sabbatical, AND ALSO demand a “payback” like this. Either the sabbatical is earned by the six years of employment, or it’s not. If we can “pay back” a sabbatical with another year of employment, why can’t we take them until we have six years’ credit? It seems like double jeopardy, or something.


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