Faculty Handbooks Guide

Faculty Handbooks as Enforceable Contracts: A State Guide

Faculty handbooks can provide a powerful tool to help faculty members vindicate their rights when facing termination or other unwarranted personnel actions. A faculty member generally has a contract or letter of appointment. Courts are often asked to decide whether a faculty handbook—which can include policies, rules, and procedures under which professors work—also establishes a contractual relationship between a professor and an institution. The issue usually arises in the context of a breach-of-contract claim, and the question is whether the faculty handbook is part of the employment contract between the professor and the institution. Contract claims are primarily based on state law and the law affecting the claims varies greatly from state to state. A majority of states have held that contractual terms can at times be implied from communications such as oral assurances, pre-employment statements, or handbooks. Of these, faculty handbooks are the most common source of implied contract terms.

Faculty handbook cases raise many issues, including:

  • Must a faculty handbook be expressly incorporated by reference into a professor’s letter of appointment for the handbook terms to be enforceable?
  • May a faculty handbook become part of a professor’s employment contract based on the university’s established practices even when no express reference to the handbook exists in that contract?
  • Is a faculty handbook a unilateral policy statement subject to change at the discretion of the institution?
  • Must a faculty handbook meet the legal contract requirements of offer, acceptance, and consideration before the handbook is enforceable as an employment contract? (Consideration is a legal term referring to something of value given in exchange for a promise.)
  • What is the legal effect of a disclaimer in a faculty handbook in which a college or university disavows any intent to be contractually bound by the contents?
  • Will an alleged “financial crisis” impact a faculty members contractual claims? (See more information on this topic in our web section on Responding to Financial Crisis.)
  • Do faculty members at public institutions have a constitutionally protected due process and property interest in continued employment based on a handbook’s provisions? (See here for more information on this topic.)
  • In a given state, are contractual claims different for faculty members at public institutions?
  • For faculty at private institutions, what limitations have been imposed by the National Labor Relations Board on the language used in handbooks? (Download the NLRB's guidance on this topic (.pdf.)

The AAUP legal department extensively updated this guide in 2015, and new cases are added as they arise. Because contract claims are governed primarily by state law, this guide is organized by state. Comprehensive material, such as law review articles and other resources, are gathered at the end of this guide.

Here are some additional AAUP website resources that may be relevant to faculty members with potential contractual claims:

This guide is not exhaustive and is not intended as legal advice. Instead it provides general legal information about this area of the law. The Association urges you to consult a lawyer in your state who is experienced in higher education or employment law. Should you require assistance locating appropriate counsel, the AAUP may be able to refer you to a local attorney.  In addition, the AAUP legal department maintains other material that may be of assistance to AAUP members and their lawyers who are pursuing contract cases. For an attorney referral or for additional information, please e-mail legal.dept@aaup.org for assistance.

Case Summaries and Citations

The case summaries and citations below are for AAUP members and require your member login. 

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
District of Columbia
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

Legal Reference Material

Terminology