June 04, 2004

Formally to indicate

Jeff Erickson at Ernie's 3D Pancakes has noted an ambiguity in his tenure letter:

With this letter, we invite you formally to indicate your acceptance of both the privileges and the reponsibilities of tenure at the University of Illinois, preparatory to the transmission of our recommendation to the President and the Board of Trustees.

As Jeff asks: "Did they formally invite me to indicate my acceptance, or did they invite me to formally indicate my acceptance? Just to be safe, I assumed the latter and formally indicated my acceptance."

The silly rule about not splitting infinitives often creates unnecessary ambiguities. But as Jeff's quotation illustrates, administrative prose is a cornucopia of ambiguity and vagueness. For example, the quoted sentence makes it clear that the invitation is preparatory to the transmission, but is vague as to where the indication of acceptance falls in this process. If Jeff didn't respond -- formally or informally -- would the rest of the process have been blocked? Obviously he played it safe and responded, both formally and immediately, but the letter invites this response without making it clear what the consequences of various other courses of action might be.

I've noticed that administrative instructions and regulations, even quasi-contractual ones like the letter Jeff quotes, are often rather vague. I suspect that this is not entirely accidental, since it offers administrators (academic and otherwise) a useful amount of interpretive discretion. In this case, the UIUC administration certainly would like to know whether someone is going to say "yes" before they take the trouble to formalize a tenure offer; but perhaps in some cases, they need to go forward without this assurance.

And as a practical matter, they can't stop someone from backing out after the fact. At least, university administrations never try to do so, as far as I know. In this respect, faculty contracts are asymmetrical: a faculty member would almost certainly go to court if a tenure contract were capriciously terminated by the university, but faculty often quit suddenly, or back out of formal offers at the last minute, without getting sued.

Thus the wording of this letter may represent an attempt to induce a commitment from Jeff, in a situation in which the university administration is not really able to require it, or at least doesn't want to establish a policy requiring it. Until the trustees act, as I understand things, they can't legally offer him a tenured position, and until they make the formal offer, he can't fomally accept it. But they'd like to have as strong a contingent commitment from him as possible.

I don't guarantee that I've understood the legal situation correctly here, but I think my analysis of the impulse behind the vaguely-expressed temporal and causal connections among invitation, acceptance and transmission is probably accurate.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 4, 2004 09:31 AM