When Things Don’t Turn Out As Expected, Part 2

Hard decisions are hard, usually because they are based on incomplete information. Even when the choice seems to be the right now, we aren't in control of all the variables that can impact that choice.

A better title for this post might be: When Integrity Trumps Common Sense.


I want to preface all of this by saying that I take full responsibility for my choices. I'm not blaming recessions, incomplete information, or other people's input, on the choices I've made. My purpose in writing these posts in such detail is to explain, as best I can, how I came to make my choices.

Ultimately, I'll also explain what I've learned from these experiences and how I've used them to grow, personally and professionally.

In the last post, I explained how I moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma and left what seemed to be the makings of a bright career in academia at Oklahoma State to return to law practice. The Great Recession disrupted my plans to build a new practice in advising tech start-up entrepreneurs. It didn't help matters that most of Alabama is, as usual, trapped in an old-economy mindset.

Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently patient in my second stint as a lawyer but, in any event, I made the proactive decision to move on and accepted an offer for a faculty position at Samford University in Birmingham.

When I said yes to that offer, I thought I was doing the right thing, given all the facts available to me at the time and my own attempt to “read the tea leaves” (metaphorically speaking) about the direction of the economy and where opportunities existed. In hindsight, I realized that in 2008-09, I was also stuck in something of an old-economy mindset, at least in terms of opportunities in internet business. More on that in a future post.

This post focuses on the events that transpired during June and July of 2009, when I ignored my gut instincts and plethora of messages from the universe.

Bad Signs

Within a few days of accepting the offer from Dean Chapman for a position as assistant professor in the Journalism & Mass Communication Department at Samford, I got a call from the department chair Bernie Ankney welcoming me to the department.

I don't recall whether it was the first or second conversation with Dr. Ankney that we began to discuss which courses I'd teach in my first semester. As I remember it, the first conversation wasn't too unsettling, even though I was surprised to learn that I wouldn't need to learn Photoshop and InDesign yet. I was told not to worry about teaching any layout/design courses in the Fall. Early on, I identified several courses that I was interested in teaching: Media Law, Feature Writing, Applied Communication Research and PR Communication.

Over the next  week or so, however, the conversations shifted heavily into the direction that I would be teaching mass media writing and, possibly, labs associated with the basic reporting/writing course. That did not make me happy–at all. I knew I'd be bored to tears and I'd never taught the courses. I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting to teach media law.

I almost didn't sign the contract when it arrived in mid-May and waited until the last possible minute to sign it and send it back in.

Then I discovered that one of the new faculty benefits that had influenced my decision in accepting the offer was not even available to me because I'd earned my Ph.D. before the cut-off date. When I asked the Dean about this discrepancy, I got a reply to this effect: “That's why I said to talk with the benefits office to confirm what I told you.” Not exactly a response to inspire confidence.

By early June, I was experiencing serious “buyer's regret.” But I had signed the contract, given my word.

Ask And You Shall Receive

Then one night I received a phone call. It came in the early evening on a day filled with a series of developments that included a literal cry to the universe to “Get me out of this state” (Despite the positives, living in Alabama can be quite frustrating at times, mainly due to inept governance).

It was as if God had heard my plea and delivered.

Plymouth State had an unexpected opening to teach business law and, in light of my interview for the business communication faculty slot, they were interested in talking with me about the business law position. Was I interested?

I explained that I had accepted Samford's offer, but I was definitely interested and wanted to learn more.

That initial conversation led to several more and, within a few days, I had an offer from the Provost of Plymouth State for an assistant professor position to teach business law. I had more credit for prior service, better benefits, higher salary.

Everything about the situation screamed “this is made for you, Sheree.”

And yet I couldn't accept it.

I wanted to accept the Plymouth State offer. I spend days talking with a real estate agent and trying to find a place to live. The then-chair of the Business program, Dr. Trent Boggess, went above-and-beyond to help me locate a home to rent.

Integrity or Fear?

But each time I started to say “yes,” I had this voice in my head saying:

“You've signed a contract. You've given your word to Samford.”

Everything about the Samford position was turning out bad for me. My gut instinct was saying I'd made a mistake in taking the position and that I'd just accepted it by default, that something was wrong.

But this other voice in my head was screaming about integrity, being true to my word. And the lawyer in me was concerned about legal options if I backed out at such a late point, after signing the contract. I knew specific performance of a professional services contract was not an issue in Alabama but damages might be.

I spoke with a couple of mentors from the College of Communication & Information Science at UA, where I'd earned my Ph.D. They said it wasn't unheard of for someone to back out of a contract in my situation.

But I couldn't bring myself to call Samford to discuss it. I wish I'd felt comfortable enough to speak with Samford's Provost at that time because I think I'd have received good advice from him. But I didn't feel comfortable raising the issue with the Dean or the department chair at Samford.

No Decision Is A Decision

I kept postponing my decision, continued to research housing options, weigh the pros and cons. I wavered.

My family had a 4th of July weekend vacation planned for Gulf Shores and so I decided to use that time to make my final decision, free of pressures from the workday.

My heart said I should go to New Hampshire.

One evening, while sitting in The Oyster House in Gulf Shores having dinner with my family, I received an email from Bernie Ankney listing my teaching assignments for Fall 2009. I would be teaching mass media writing and two sections of the lab associated with that course. Applied Communication Research rounded out my schedule. Four courses. The only course I cared to teach was Applied Communication Research and that was the only one I'd had any experience teaching before. I'd taught a variation of research methods for undergraduates one semester as an adjunct at UA in Spring 2000.

My heart was broken.

I sat at the dinner table and cried in front of my family.

My head and my heart said I had to go to New Hampshire, take the job at Plymouth State where I could teach courses I cared about. My dream had been to live in New England and I could now make that dream a reality.

The next day I mentioned to my mom during a walk on the beach that I was probably going to New Hampshire. I heard a litany of reasons why I should not move there and why Samford was the better choice.

That conversation from my mom led me to waver again in my resolve to get out of the Samford contract, even though I left that vacation and returned home with the intention of accepting the Plymouth offer the following Monday.

I must conclude this post now. I'll pick up the story after Thanksgiving.

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