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Rewriting the Faculty Handbook: Tales from the Trenches

A revision process proves the value of transparent engagement.
By Rebecca S. Linger and Ericka P. Zimmerman

It is standard that a faculty manual or handbook of institutional policies and procedures communicates to the faculty the expectations of the administration. Such a document becomes the de facto contract between employer and employee as many colleges and universities in the United States offer letters of appointment in lieu of formal contracts. These letters describe the obligations of the university to compensate the faculty member—and may also address the length of the term of appointment and the possibility of future contracts. They generally do not outline policies and procedures or expectations for the faculty member, but instead refer to a faculty handbook for clarification of the faculty member’s role at the institution.

Much has been written about the binding nature of such handbooks and their legitimacy as legal documents. As an AAUP guide to faculty handbooks demonstrates, their enforceability varies from state to state. An effective handbook defines all policies and procedures clearly so that faculty members can easily agree to the terms of the document and feel that they have a voice in the establishment of the policies under which they are governed. The key challenge is to create a document that gives the administration a legal basis for disciplinary action or dismissal, if needed, while also engendering an acceptance of these policies by the faculty. The process of establishing the policies and procedures of governance at the university level must always include strong support of the faculty and approval of the administration.

In an ideal environment, faculty members write the handbook, using as examples the handbooks of colleges or universities with similar characteristics. The committee should invite members of all factions within the university to participate in the process while limiting the size of the committee. Regular meetings must include all constituents so that faculty feel that they have a voice in the development of this governing document. If the committee deems suggestions about and changes to the draft document unnecessary, of questionable legal standing, or unacceptable to the majority of faculty members, the committee should follow up with and provide explanations to the faculty members who first made the suggestions.

The faculty handbook must address policy differences between the schools within the university. For example, graduate schools will have higher expectations of scholarship for their faculty than the institution has for faculty members who teach only undergraduates, and professional schools may require supervision of internships. The inclusion of the differing policies and procedures of each school must be clear in the handbook, and schools may need to write sections of the handbook that address the unique aspects of their programs. All faculty must have the opportunity to evaluate the final draft of the handbook before it goes to the administration for approval and implementation.

Typically, approval of the faculty handbook will begin with the chief academic officer (provost or dean of faculty), who should work with the faculty handbook committee to monitor its progress The committee should have autonomy from the administration in drafting the document, but it should engage in conversations with the chief academic officer about the legality and likely approval of proposed changes or new policies. A legal team must analyze the document to ensure that the policies are in compliance with municipal, state, and federal employment laws. Finally, the institution’s governing committee—either the board of trustees or presidential cabinet—must review the handbook.

At the University of Charleston, where we teach, faculty members recently combined and rewrote existing faculty handbooks to create a single document that governs our diverse yet small university. Historically an undergraduate institution, the university has expanded to include graduate programs, offering degrees in pharmacy and executive leadership, business administration, and physician assistant studies. In 2008, the administration attempted to write a graduate faculty handbook based on the existing undergraduate faculty handbook. This document was incomplete, and its implementation was confusing to graduate faculty. Some of the policies within the document were in conflict with the policies governing the undergraduate faculty, and the administration indicated when questioned that graduate faculty should follow the policies of the manual for undergraduate faculty. In addition, it failed to define many aspects of regular operation of the graduate program. Some of the language about policies already in place for the undergraduate faculty was opaque and open to wide interpretation. There was an obvious need for a new handbook that would include governance policies for all faculty.

The faculty handbook should describe all aspects of employment. The following sections should be in place for the document to serve as a contract between the institution and the faculty member, although specific requirements can vary from state to state: faculty appointment policies; faculty classifications, including academic rank; and descriptions of tenure or contracts. The handbook should communicate clearly all personnel policies—including hiring, promotion and contract renewals (if applicable), and processes of separation—and describe instructional and academic duties in full. Additionally, the document should include descriptions of acceptable leaves of absence; statements on academic freedom, professional ethics, and academic integrity; descriptions of conflicts of interest; and equal employment opportunity statements. It should provide detailed descriptions of faculty governance structures, including definitions of governing committees. Finally, it must include policies and procedures for updating the faculty handbook.

For institutions with multiple and diverse schools of learning, the faculty handbook may require policies and procedures specific to each individual school. Adding these as appendices makes it easier for individual schools to update them if necessary.

Most colleges and universities will need to update, refresh, or recreate their faculty handbooks at some point. At our institution, major transformations had taken place. In addition to having two separate faculty handbooks (referred to as faculty manuals), the administration had created a new layer of faculty governance, known as the Faculty Assembly, and created a governance document to describe the leadership roles and new committee structures. The administration decided to convert the three handbooks, which lacked adequate descriptions of many university committees, into one overarching document addressing the common issues across the faculty while delineating the specific issues for each cohort, graduate or undergraduate.

The university’s Faculty Affairs Committee (FAC), a body of elected representatives from each school that included graduate and undergraduate faculty members, took responsibility for creating the new document. The FAC opted to form a task force composed of volunteers from within the FAC. The resulting group of three faculty members—two undergraduate faculty members and one graduate faculty member—represented three of the four schools. Partway through the process, a faculty member from the fourth school joined the task force.

The FAC knew who the members of the task force were but did not announce their names to the faculty as a whole. Initially, no concerns were raised. However, as the task force made more specific and significant updates, faculty began to question whether it adequately represented all faculty constituents. The task force had to backtrack and educate faculty on the selection process, taking time away from the issue at hand. In hindsight, the FAC should have formally announced the process and results of member selection to the entire faculty from the beginning, promising representation from each of the four schools and a balance of undergraduate and graduate faculty.

After identifying the task force members, the group set its initial meeting and continued to meet for several months. During this time, the task force compared the undergraduate and graduate faculty handbooks by placing similar sections within a spreadsheet and identified the process for review. Each member was responsible for reviewing or rewriting sections of the handbook. Meetings were open to faculty, and the task force noted handbook section assignments and edits in the spreadsheet.

In the early stages, most faculty did not appear interested in the organizational aspect. However, the task force could have done a better job communicating to the faculty the dates, times, and agenda for the meetings to allow a more transparent process.

At the time of the task force’s inception, the FAC should have formally defined its objectives, charges, and purpose, documenting in writing the responsibilities of the committee, schools, university, and other constituents. The task force should have identified assumptions of the group through a statement such as the following: “Members of this committee have removed personal preference with the goal of identifying the best outcome for the faculty in this institution of higher education.” The chair of the committee should have communicated

  • descriptions of the existing governing documents to be merged
  • minutes of every meeting of the committee, available to all faculty;
  • a written log of all meetings and communications; and
  • identification of common terms, definitions, or phrases for consistency.

Establishing a timeline and sharing it with the whole faculty is important, as is the flexibility to adjust the schedule when necessary.

The task force obtained faculty handbooks from peer institutions, other institutions in the state and region, and other institutions with similar major and degree offerings. Locating and reviewing the available reference documents was time-consuming. While we would not recommend reviewing a large number of resources, faculty from our institution clearly indicated a desire for specific and detailed fact-finding to justify the updates and changes proposed by the task force.

During the revision process, utilizing other resources can be beneficial. Some of the resources may be internal, such as the official position or wording from the board of trustees, human resources, or legal counsel on leave of absence or nondiscrimination. Consider resources from other institutions of higher education and from the AAUP. Peer institutions—as determined by the board of trustees or administration, as well as the Carnegie classifications—are a good reference point. However, review of materials from non-peer institutions, such as those within the same state or geographical area or with similar demographic profiles,  majors, or degree offerings, is also appropriate.

The task force used a spreadsheet to allow faculty to review the existing language of all documents and the proposed changes in language. The purposes of this decision were threefold: to save the faculty time in the evaluation of the document, to provide transparency, and to decrease the anxiety and confusion of the faculty by placing the information directly in front of them. The spreadsheet allowed faculty to compare language from the three handbooks (undergraduate, graduate, and Faculty Assembly) and see the proposed new wording. For example, faculty could find the row related to promotion and read the previous language from each faculty handbook and the new proposed language.

Response from the faculty indicated that we met our objectives for transparency by highlighting all documents and language in one document and allowing productive engagement by the faculty while debating the proposed language. The task force would continue to use this type of presentation during future evaluations of the handbook.

At the beginning of the process, the task force created timelines for gathering documents, entering content into the spreadsheet, and writing proposed language. Following the completion of this phase, the task force began seeking input from faculty on the proposed language using an anonymous survey format, dividing. the proposed faculty handbook into sections, and sending each section along with an evaluation tool to faculty members, asking them to review the specific section and propose  revisions or make other relevant comments. This process continued until there was consensus. There were no formal deadlines for completion; instead, the goal, which was achieved, was to complete this process within one semester.

It is important that committees tasked with updating faculty handbooks create a timeline for tasks that require external input, including faculty response to proposed wording, review by legal counsel, and feedback from the administration and board of trustees. Also significant is consideration of external factors that could affect the completion of the revision of the handbook; for example, we wanted to complete our rewrite before the reaccreditation visit from our institution’s regional accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission.

 The initial timeline scheduled review, input, and revision by the faculty in the spring semester, review by legal counsel and administration in the summer, evaluation by faculty in early fall, and a final review and approval by the board of trustees by the end of the fall. This timeline would allow for a spring semester preparation and planning period and implementation the following fall. The original spring semester date for input and revision by faculty was met. Due to unexpected circumstances, legal counsel and the administration were unable to complete a review of the document and provide input until late in the fall semester. The delay created initial frustration for the task force and the faculty as a whole. However, the additional time did allow for more discussion and overall acceptance of the upcoming changes.

Legal counsel and the administration completed their review and provided input in early December. The administration sent the final comments to faculty in late December with a request for approval at the first faculty meeting in early January, prior to the beginning of the spring semester. The task force asked for a delay of the faculty vote so that the faculty could review the document in depth and provide further input.

The committee tasked with updating a faculty handbook must advocate for thorough faculty review and input. In our case, the administration tried to make up for lost time caused by other legal and administrative issues during the summer by asking for a quick approval by the faculty. Given that a faculty handbook is the guiding document for the academic life of the faculty, such a request was unreasonable. Advocacy by the task force resulted in an updated timeline that allowed for sufficient faculty review of the document.

From the beginning, the task force maintained an informational document outlining the charges, responsibilities, and makeup of the committee membership. Discussions with the faculty indicated that there was a need to formalize this informational document for distribution and include the various task-force working sessions, presentations to faculty, open forums and conversations, and relevant email correspondence. The document became an archive of the work of the task force, which was useful for the reaccreditation visit. The task force also found the document helpful in demonstrating the transparency of the revision process when some faculty members claimed they had not had an opportunity for input.

The task force also maintained a record of the proposed language changes throughout the editing and revision process. This archive was helpful, as there were times the faculty members came full circle after several revisions, sometimes creating new wording that essentially repeated the original wording. When faculty members asked questions in meetings, the task force was able to show how the revisions had evolved. In the end, these archival documents were useful in describing the activities of the task force and providing points of reference for the faculty, the administration, the board of trustees, and the Higher Learning Commission.

Following approval of a revised faculty handbook, faculty should periodically review the document. Is the handbook serving the needs of the faculty? What changes have taken place within the institution that should trigger a revision of the handbook? We should consider faculty handbooks living documents that continue to evolve as the institution changes over time. To that end, the faculty affairs committee should be cognizant that any institutional changes or program additions call for evaluation of the faculty handbook to determine whether it is necessary to add new language or to update entire sections.

The experience of rewriting the faculty handbook by combining existing documents was revealing. Although the task force made relatively few changes to policies and procedures and engaged the faculty in the review process, a faction of faculty members continue to feel that the handbook has changed drastically and does not reflect their views of governance or university structure. Many in-depth discussions about university governance took place within the faculty assembly meetings, however, and a majority of faculty members approved the handbook. At the next level of approval by administration and the board of trustees, the faculty assembly vigorously debated changes suggested by these groups, and a coalition of the task force and the Faculty Assembly leadership completed revision.

Overall, the faculty indicated their support of the methods employed in the handbook revisions, both in terms of the transparency of the process and the engagement they felt in the process. Knowing that faculty handbooks require updating and revision as time goes on, we hope that the practices we have described will be of benefit to others engaged in similar work.

Rebecca S. Linger is an associate professor of medicinal chemistry with the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy. Her email address is [email protected]. Ericka P. Zimmerman is the director of the School of Health Sciences and associate professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Her email address is [email protected].



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