retroactive firing

I would like to tell the story of a dean at a prestigious university in the United States who was willing to go a great length when I, an international Lecturer on a 1-year contract, presented my resignation. The dean went as far as to threaten me with retroactive firing (!), and put me at risk of loosing my new job and, even worse, deportation.

The story goes as follows: I was working as a lecturer at university A. I was on a working visa (I need a visa to be in any country other than the one I was born). I had a big teaching load, no research time and no stability (the contract was for one year, renewable). Most important, this job came with a lot of uncertainty, for I didn’t know whether they would renew my contract until two or three months before its expiration date, and therefore of my visa’s expiration date. No job = no visa = deportation. In my second year as a Lecturer I applied for a postdoc position at a high profile university (university B). And I was offered the position (yay!). Having a job offer when you are on a visa is not, however, any warranty. University B couldn’t confirm my contract until they had all visa documents transferred from university A, and approved by the governmental office. In order to start that process, which would take several months, I had to keep my visa, sponsored by university A, valid. The HR people from university B told me I had to be hired in my previous job in A right until the day before my new contract with B was planned to start, otherwise the transfer could not be done.

I asked senior faculty in different universities what was the best way to do this, and they all recommended not to quit my current job until I had the new job confirmed, pointing out that this is a common practice and nothing to be ashamed of. I was, anyway, concerned about somehow betraying university A. According to university A’s regulations, I had to inform them at least 4 weeks in advance before quitting my job there, and so I did. A few days before those compulsory 4 weeks, I presented my resignation to my department chair. After congratulating me for my new job, he told me that the resignation process should be fast and easy. A few days later, however, in the middle of my packing and preparing to leave for the new city to start my job at university B, the chair wrote to me saying that the dean was not happy, and that I had to choose between quitting my job at university A a few months earlier and returning the salary of those months, or staying there for another semester. A series of stressful exchanges happened in the following days. University B told me it was not possible to postpone the start date of my job, so I couldn’t stay at university A for another semester without loosing the postdoc job. Then the dean at University A threatened with retroactive firing me, a notion I had never heard before. If that was possible, she was threatening with turning my status of the previous months into illegal (how could that be possible?). I was very confused and scared, unsure of what was legally possible for them to do and of how likely deportation was. I have been in this country for more than 11 years, and risking my legal status was something I always avoided at any cost. I offered university A to return my salary from previous months, and asked them to please keep me hired, otherwise I would lose both jobs and would be deported. They looked into how possible that option was, and apparently there were some problems. My department chair proved to be completely incompetent in handling this, and didn’t support me much. I didn’t know whom I could trust or rely. It was the international scholars office director who put an end to this mess: he reminded the dean and everyone else that it was not OK for the university to intentionally jeopardize my legal status in this country. Thanks to this reminder, the dean stopped their threatening.

I keep wondering what was in the dean’s mind when she was threatening with that peculiar action, retroactive firing, and how much of a financial problem she was trying to fix by keeping two months’ salary of a lecturer with a one-year contract. I wonder if she was aware that she was threatening someone in a very vulnerable position, putting at risk an entire professional career in this country and a whole personal life (my partner and friends are in this country, not in the country which happened to issue my passport). A piece of advice to international scholars: in the event of problems or misunderstandings with deans or chairs, please go to your international scholars office and ask for your rights.

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