A philosopher with a tenure-track job applied for a position at another university. The application and interview process went well, and he got the offer. And then he didn’t get the offer.
The candidate says:
I just went through an absolutely wild experience where I was given a verbal offer for a position. [Over the course of several weeks] the chair continually repeated to me, “the written offer is coming in a few days.” Then, over five weeks later, I was in fact told that no formal offer was going to come.
He says that the reason is not that funding for the position vanished or that the search was canceled. He doesn’t know the precise reason, but says “I can only assume the chair was lying to me while they locked down someone else.”
He wrote in to share the story, curious about how common this is.
It is unusual for this kind of thing to happen, and it ought not to happen. As for why things like this happen, my default background view is Hanlon’s Razor: don’t assume malice when incompetence will do. But also, some forms of incompetence are professionally irresponsible.
It may be that the chair was foolish in thinking things were settled before they really were, and then was too embarrassed to communicate this before circumstances forced them to. Or it could be that the department voted the candidate the offer but for some reason a dean or someone else higher up surprisingly didn’t approve (and perhaps for some reason completely unrelated to the candidate’s qualifications). And so on.
In short, there are a variety of ways in which what ends up officially happening with a search is not what the search committee or department decided to do.
Search committee members, department chairs, and anyone else providing informal updates to job candidates should know this. And they should know that professional ethics at the very least here recommends that they be transparent about the contingency of job “offers” before they are in writing and in the possession of the candidate.
Of course, it may be that the actual explanation in this case is that the chair was intentionally conveying to the candidate a false impression of his chances as a way of keeping him interested while the department looked at other applicants or made up their minds. That’s not incompetence. That’s being sleazy.
Those on the hiring side may fear that being honest with a candidate about the uncertainty of the process risks losing them, but they ought to recognize that the matter is morally much more important to the candidate than the department. Whether an individual job candidate has a job offer could have significant effects on the candidate’s life, even if they don’t take it; but whether a department has to hire someone else because their first choice candidate accepted an offer elsewhere as they wrapped up their hiring process is of little if any moral significance (at least in regard to its effects on the department).
If you’ve had an unofficial offer fail to materialize in writing, or a similar experience, feel free to share it here. If you’ve had experience, as a member of a hiring department, with a surprise failure of your department’s hiring decision to be executed by your university, you’re welcome to share that, too. It would be useful to be reminded of the various contingencies that can affect the outcomes of job searches.