New Faculty Handbooks Guide

By Kathi S. Wescott

Can my faculty handbook help me if my job is on the line? Are the processes and procedures it lays out really enforceable? College and university handbooks touch on a broad array of issues, from the composition of an institution’s governance structure to how leave requests are granted. A faculty handbook can also be an integral part of a faculty member’s employment contract—but its enforceability can differ from state to state, causing confusion and uncertainty for faculty members facing administrative actions that affect the whole school or questions about their individual employment status.

Each year, the AAUP fields numerous inquiries about what legal role a faculty handbook might play in resolving employment questions and larger questions about an administration’s actions. In response to these inquiries, the AAUP’s legal office has developed a state-by-state guide to the legal treatment of faculty handbooks. This guide is intended to be a quick reference for professors, administrators, and lawyers who are seeking to analyze whether provisions of a faculty handbook are enforceable as a contract. The guide has previously been available for sale; this year, in a time of financial and employment uncertainty, we are pleased to offer it for free on the AAUP website.

While this guide is not an exhaustive resource, it is a good starting point for understanding what your state law says about handbooks as contracts. (The language of the handbook itself is also, of course, a key starting point for any analysis.) The guide focuses on cases set in the higher education context. The guide is not intended as legal advice; if you have questions about the enforceability of your faculty handbook, we encourage you to consult with an attorney in your state who is experienced in higher education or employment law. Should you require assistance in locating a lawyer, the AAUP may be able to refer you to a local attorney; please e-mail attorneyreferral@aaup.org for assistance. The AAUP legal office updates this guide periodically and encourages users of the guide to provide feedback on its contents and ease of use.

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