One other point has occurred to me, with regard to the firing/not-quite-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, which I have commented on here and here. Defenders of the university’s decision say that he had no right to have his academic freedom respected by UI because he was not formally in their employ. The fact that he had accepted a written offer of employment nearly a year before, agreed on a starting date, signed a contract, quit his previous job, moved across the country, and been assigned courses to teach in the fall semester were simply free-time activities, which only would become a real employment in October — a month after he was supposed to start teaching — when the board that meets once a semester ratified the hiring.
Whether this is legally accurate I can’t really judge. But I’m just thinking about the effect on future hiring, particularly at UI, but elsewhere as well. Clearly no one is going to let themselves be fooled this way by UI in the future. Everyone knows that claims of “just a formality” are simply deception at that university, and will insist on ironclad promises before they begin steps to move to a position there. Other people will just spare themselves the stress by not applying for positions at UI. (Remember, this is not about low-level jobs, of which there is a great shortage in the humanities, and a huge mass of qualified people desperate to take any meagre job. This was a tenured position.) And the ripples from this decision will affect other universities as well. Even if they make the offer in good faith, why take the chance that someone will comb through your public utterances and scare the university off hiring you. Best to insist on an ironclad contract before taking any steps. And this includes withdrawing the applications from other posts. Universities are likely to find senior academics who they thought they’d hired suddenly withdrawing shortly before they were supposed to start, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by the agreement until the formalities were taken wrapped up, and in the interim they got a better offer. This is likely to gum up university hiring in the US for a long time to come. Procedures will have to change, and the traditional role of occasional board meetings to ratify hiring decisions changed or eliminated.