On many college and university campuses, the special call to form a Faculty Handbook review and revision committee can be met by some faculty members with delight and by others—perhaps most—with dread. The latter is especially the case if those faculty have been through this periodic revision before and have memories of tense wordsmithery in meetings or unproductive conflicts among the constituents who make up shared governance.
This often-thankless task, and one that usually takes longer than anticipated, is nevertheless a crucial practice for the faculty and institution alike. Especially now, in our era of exigencies—when many institutions are being forced to reduce operating budgets, including head count, while still meeting students’ expectations—the Faculty Handbook revision process must embrace what I think of as the five C’s. They include clarity, compliance, currency, culture-centeredness and collaboration, and here’s how to think about them in practice.
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Although it is risky to begin an essay with a grammar lesson, Faculty Handbook revisioning needs to mind its shalls and wills, its musts and shoulds. Not simply a lexicographer’s indulgence, those words have very real consequences in Faculty Handbooks. Consider these different sentences about a common section in handbooks: the faculty evaluation process, including the date materials are due. Each statement means something different in terms of intent or expectations—some less generous, some more.
- “Faculty shall submit their evaluation dossier by the first Friday of September.”
- “Faculty must submit their evaluation dossier by the first Friday of September.”
- “Faculty will submit their evaluation dossier by the first Friday of September.”
- “Faculty should submit their evaluation dossier by the first Friday of September.”
“Shall,” legally, suggests an action that is contractually binding or a requirement, which is common-sensical given the expectations a Faculty Handbook has for the governance of the individual and collective faculty. Black’s Law Dictionary notes that when used in statutes, “the word is generally imperative or mandatory.” However, “shall” also is one of the most misused and misunderstood words, as demonstrated by the scores and scores of pages in Words and Phrases, a key legal text, citing court cases centered on the ambiguous meaning of “shall.”
Legal writing is moving away from “shall” to the much clearer “must” in order to more plainly articulate requirement and obligation, as suggested by the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. “Will” suggests a hopeful future intent, whereas “should,” in this sentence, unravels into a possible likelihood of adherence to deadline, with no apparent contractual consequences if the dossier is a day or a month late. (As a quick note, this article most often uses “should” to signal the best practices to consider in handbook revision, which also implicitly suggests possible consequences for not doing so.)
If you are embarking on handbook review and revision, you should scrutinize it for these modal verbs (“modal” meaning that express an obligation), keeping track of where and in what circumstances each is used. Then determine if a different modal verb would be clearer—changing the shalls to musts, for example. The revision should strive for consistency in usage so that not every chapter of a handbook uses a different signal of intention. Finally, document these definitions in the handbook in a footnote, glossary of terms or appendix so that the institution can have consistency in understanding and application.
This exercise in clarifying modal verbs alone allows the handbook to take on more straightforward comment, with more simply constructed sentences. But don’t stop there! Take a page or several from the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which mandated U.S. government agencies simplify their language to write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Couple concision in language, sentence and paragraph structure with organization that delineates purpose, and then commit to the ever-important admonition to know your audience. In this case, it’s helpful to consider the audience as those new faculty members at the institution who are looking for consolidated, consistent and reliable information as they start their careers.
The other act of simplification is to corral all the governing documents of the institution—bylaws, handbooks, evaluation guidelines, employee policies—and determine if, first, they agree with each other, and second, if they should remain disconnected or should be integrated. Faculty Handbooks and institutional bylaws have been known to offer differing policies, including in areas that relate directly to the faculty, such as who has oversight over curricular matters or faculty status. Straightening out such differences is crucial for shared governance.
Once the review and revision committee has determined shared agreement among documents, then consider what other documents you should incorporate in the Faculty Handbook. Descriptions of standing committees and their membership, sabbaticals and other professional supports such as funding, teaching load, terms of compensation and leaves of absences are only some of the other items to consider including in Faculty Handbooks—rather than have them as separate policies existing in administrative files, precedents or memories.
Although it goes without saying that legal compliance is crucial, let me underscore that legal compliance is crucial. If your institution’s Faculty Handbook has not been updated in quite a while, it may contain language that is not only out of date but also noncompliant with current federal, state or local laws. Consultation with counsel is required both as the handbook is being reviewed for revision and once the revisions are completed. Some faculties may have J.D.s in addition to Ph.D.s and are often well situated to serve on a handbook revision committee. Their presence there, however, does not negate the need for running the handbook revisions by your institution’s legal counsel.
Compliance is crucial in two other areas. The first is with the institution’s human resources policies that govern all employees. Although faculty members enjoy different privileges than staff members, in some cases, an employee is an employee, such as with employee codes of conduct or benefits. Scan the Faculty Handbook for general employee policies and then check that the handbook has included or links to the most recent iteration of them.
Second, be sure the handbook and the handbook revision committee comply with established governance. Does a faculty committee, for example, have responsibility for reviewing the handbook rather than an ad hoc group? Although many colleges and universities’ faculty governance is sufficiently broad to be able to accommodate yet one more ad hoc faculty committee, it’s worth checking to be sure.
Faculty Handbook review and revision committees should also engage early and often with American Association of University Professors’ Policy Documents and Reports, aka the Red Book, beyond the definition of academic freedom. Make sure that your campus governance complies with those practices and then embed them in the Faculty Handbook with appropriate citation to the AAUP.
A Faculty Handbook is not like a Google Doc where anyone can change language provided they have the keys to the editing kingdom. Yet if faculty members could see the historical editing of the handbook, they would find that it very much reflected each era and the issues prominent in it. Faculty could trace changes to student-faculty personal relationships, tenure and promotion criteria, joint appointments, even titular adjustments—vice presidents to provosts, directors to deans. There may even be idiosyncratic language in a handbook reflective of a particular unnamed faculty issue from long or near ago—dogs in faculty offices, rules governing how close to campus faculty should live, nepotism or expectations to take a summer job to compensate for low salary.
What that means is that faculty governance, as reflected in the handbook, is historical and, depending on the longevity of faculty members, may be actual history for some. Handbook review and revision committees are well served to unearth those outdated stories—real and myth—and banish them, if possible, from the handbook. Compile that list of annual changes to the handbook so faculty members years or decades from now can trace their evolution. Some institutions publish this in the appendix each year as a quick guide for faculty interested in seeing the changes.
Removing the historical idiosyncratic sections should then make room for all of the current items that need to be included in order for the handbook to represent the current era and faculty. For instance, it’s absolutely key to thoroughly examine how the handbook articulates the faculty’s commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. Some institutions have developed statements about the faculty’s commitments, both ideologically and practically, and detail how those commitments are manifest in actual faculty work. Other institutions have woven DEI approaches and concerns through the handbook, such as in the descriptions of faculty responsibilities or faculty hiring guidelines. Doing so can be remarkably powerful as a reminder of shared values and aspirations.
The other crucial area for currency, again given this era of exigency, is in the section about academic program closures and faculty dismissals. Here, clarity and honesty matter. Some handbooks include the phrase “bona fide” before the phrase “financial exigency,” a clear signal that the declaration of exigency is true and made in good faith. How readers feel about including “bona fide” as a modifier probably suggests a lot about the relationship between the faculty and the administration, or the comfort faculty members feel about the finances of their institution.
Other handbooks clearly articulate how much severance a faculty member is entitled to—or in some cases not, if dismissed because the university is closing their program. Here again, the AAUP provides important guidance. The revision committee should—in fact, must—ensure that this chapter in the handbook is utterly clear, well organized and compliant, because people’s livelihoods depend on it.
If you read enough Faculty Handbooks, or even just two, you quickly realize how different they are from each other. Although they can be divided into similar sections—responsibilities of the faculty, evaluations, academic policies and the like—each institution takes a different approach to those areas. That is, Faculty Handbooks reflect their institutional and faculty cultures, and revisions to them must do the same.
What this means is that you must gather a wide range of faculty members on the campus to work on handbook revisions. Faculty members who have long service to the institution can offer reflection on its culture and practices as well as provide a broad perspective. And those who are newer to the institution can offer the valuable feedback of what cultural practices need to either be written down in the handbook because they are too opaque for a newcomer or critically examined because they no longer, or should no longer, apply. These newer faculty members also will carry the culture forward, so they should have a handbook in which they’ve had some input.
All this is not to say there are not best practices in the professional work of faculty, let alone legal concerns. The AAUP suggests a clearly articulated timeline for contract renewal, for example; communication best practices suggest that the steps for the dismissal of a tenured faculty or the evaluation timeline must be explicit. The responsibility of the handbook review and revision committee is to embed such best practices within the culture of the institution.
Finally, revising the Faculty Handbook should be a collaborative process that occurs at regular intervals, in addition to the singular changes that a committee might suggest in any given year. When a process like this is about to begin, the faculty as a whole needs to know that it’s underway and how they can offer their input into the process.
Surveys to faculty inquiring about particularly confusing passages in the handbook are helpful ways to gather information. Regular reports to the Faculty Senate or entire faculty are in order, too, especially when the committee begins to make suggested changes to the language in the handbook. Depending on faculty’s proclivity toward group editing, you should determine early in the process how the revision committee can move changes forward without bogging down in linguistic minutiae, especially since other committees or the Faculty Senate will probably have some oversight of the process.
In addition to noting in the Faculty Handbook the frequency of a thorough review—every five or seven years, for example—faculty members also need to know the timeline for the revision committee and the points in that timeline when suggested revisions will be made public for further consultation. Faculty members and administrative leaders should also collaborate so that the suggested revisions are not only legally compliant but also align with the institution’s realities. The revision committee won’t be able to halve the number of years between sabbaticals, for example, or redefine academic policies. And since some handbooks require the Board of Trustees to approve all or some of the revisions, alerting the board early that the revision process is beginning helps avoid any surprises at the end.
Another way to remove the element of surprise or unintended wording consequences is to contract with a faculty member or academic administrator at a similar institution to serve as an external reviewer. That person can offer valuable perspective, identify places where revised language is still too cryptic or ambiguous and share examples from other colleges and universities. They also can ask hard questions of everyone involved—the faculty, administration and legal counsel—in order to serve as a consultative go-between among those groups.
A wholesale review of a Faculty Handbook, and the likely revisions that will result from it, is not an easy or quick process, nor should it be. But it’s a necessary act of collaboration to ensure clarity, currency and compliance—and one that most effectively articulates best practices for faculty professional work within your institution’s cultural context. I hope these recommendations will help guide those of you who are embarking on such an effort. And thank you to those of you who have already performed this important service on your campuses.