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Faculty contracts

Topics/tags: Academia

When I received my first contract from Grinnell, I was surprised at how concise it was. As I recall, it was a more legalistic version of

We’ll pay you [this much] to be an assistant professor of Computer Science; see the Faculty Handbook and the Trustee bylaws for more details.

I recall the Dean’s assistant telling me that I was the first person she encountered who asked for the Handbook and the Bylaws before signing their contract [1]. But I read through the Handbook, using my limited experience to parse the positives and negatives. Among other things, I recall being impressed by how thoroughly the Handbook addressed shared positions. Ever since, I’ve tried to pay close attention to the Handbook, since I care about what my contract says.

At a recent faculty meeting, we were discussing some proposed changes to the Faculty Handbook [2]. During the discussion, someone suggested that the Faculty Handbook is not a contract. I was surprised to hear that, because I’d recalled signing documents that said otherwise, so I went to look. And I found that the foreword to the Handbook does include the following paragraph.

The Faculty Handbook, while dealing with employment policies and procedures, is not intended to provide any assurance of continued employment and should in no way be construed as an employment contract. [3]

I guess the speaker was right. But I wanted to check my memory, so I found my contracts with the College [4]. The two that I have are nearly identical and are close to what I recalled. That is, they are short and they point to the Handbook. Here are the details.

This Contract is by and between The Trustees of Grinnell College, hereinafter referred to as the college, and Samuel Rebelsky, hereinafter referred to as a faculty member.

[Details on term, salary, number of payments per year, rank, department, and length of contract.]

Special Conditions: Fringe benefits as eligible.

The rules and regulations concerning the Faculty as set out in the Bylaws of the Trustees and the Faculty Handbook are hereby referred to and by reference are made a part hereof. If you wish to accept this appointment, please sign your name in the indicated place on each of the two copies, and return the original at once, retaining this copy for your own records. The receipt of this acceptance is essential to the validity of this contract. [5]

Now I’m confused. The contract I signed, such as it is, says that the Faculty Handbook is part of my contract. The Faculty Handbook says that it is not a contract. The combination feels like a logic puzzle. My one solution is to interpret the Handbook as saying that it is not a contract by itself, which suggests that it could still be a contract when incorporated into another document. However, I am not a lawyer.

At least the Dean and President said that they would look into the issue [6].

I wonder what other institutions do.

Postscript: I was a bit worried when I realized that the most recent contract I signed with the College may have been when I was still an assistant professor. But then I remembered that both of my promotion letters indicated that I had the rights and responsibilities of a tenured faculty member, and those letters thereby ensure my continued employment.

[1] She was likely exaggerating.

[2] I supported some and vehemently opposed others.

[3] Grinnell College. Grinnell College Faculty Handbook. Last Revision 9/16/19. Approved June 2019. Found online at

[4] More precisely, I asked someone to find my contracts with the College.

[5] The Trustees of Grinnell College. Faculty Contract. Dated 24-Feb-00.

[6] At least I think they did.

Version 1.0 of 2019-10-22.