At-Will Employment

The longer I work in public higher education, the more I observe its propensity to embrace the “guerrilla” tactics that typically characterize the private sector.   It reminds me of the decades-old discussion about whether a university should function more like a business. 

In recent years, I have witnessed the university careers of old and new employees cut short by use of the at-will employment law.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “at-will means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.”  Of course, an employee can also sever their university employment at any time, but it does not have the same personal impact.   An employee that is not familiar with the at-will law may be working under the assumption that there will be opportunities to address or modify unacceptable behaviors or enhance performance using the traditional probation, oral and written due process procedures.  This is not always the case, nor does it have to be, according to the at-will employment law practiced in the majority of the United States.

My advice to the University applicant, especially those who seek or hold full-time staff positions, is to do your research on the at-will law, the exceptions to it, and how your current or prospective employer has used the law.   The desire of university leaders to ensure legislators, governing boards, and communities of their commitment to being good stewards of public funds is most likely driving this.   Alternatively, the leaders may be trying to establish a reputation of “taking no prisoners”.    Regardless of their reason, the applicant who seeks a full-time staff position must be aware of the changing work environment on university campuses and be prepared to exit with little or no forewarning or pursue a blended full- or part-time faculty position (which currently offers more employment protections) with staff responsibility.



D. A. Buchanan is a 30+-year higher education administrator and a member of the educational leadership graduate faculty of a historically black university in the southeast United States.

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