Let Bylaws Be Bylaws: A Cautionary Tale About Senate Succession
In recent years, succession planning has become an important topic within our community college system. For example, to fully meet accreditation Standard IV, colleges need to demonstrate that they have processes in place to create leadership capacity by encouraging broad participation. In fact, Los Angeles City College received the following accreditation recommendation in 2009:
In order to increase institutional effectiveness, the team recommends that the college engage in succession planning to increase leadership capacity, institutional consistency, and employee involvement and engagement.
This particular recommendation aligns with the Academic Senate’s own recognition of the importance of succession planning for local academic senates.1,2
While succession planning is an institutional responsibility of all constituencies, the role of local academic senates in succession planning is especially crucial. This is not only because senates have purview over academic and professional matters, but also because senates bear the primary responsibility for appointing faculty to all college committees related to the 10+1, including committees responsible for implementing college processes, such as program review, strategic planning, and budget development. A well-functioning senate inspires faculty to participate in college and senate committee work, which creates a culture in which broad faculty involvement in college governance is the norm. This in turn leads to a healthy, well-functioning college that is able to focus on student learning and success.
Because of the central role of the senate in a college’s participatory governance structure, it is vital that every senate have its own clear and workable succession plan. Senates normally codify their succession plans within their governing documents such as constitutions, bylaws, standing rules, and committee charters. For example, senates normally include in their governing documents the methods for electing officers, appointing committee members, and selecting committee chairs. Usually not much thought is given to these processes as they are routine, and they typically work as planned. However, sometimes things go awry, and when they do, chaos can ensue. What follows is a true account of a situation that occurred at a college. It is a cautionary tale of what happens when there are unforeseen flaws in senate succession plans that are not recognized until it is too late.
First, a little background information is in order. At this particular college, the senate has the following elected officers: President, a First Vice President (1st VP), a Second Vice President (2nd VP), a Secretary, and a Treasurer. Last spring, the 1st VP was elected to be the new local senate president at this college, and the 2nd VP was elected to be their district senate’s curriculum committee chair. Because the two VPs were not elected on the same cycle as the senate president, the both vacant VP positions were filled through appointment by the college’s academic senate. As a result, there were two VPs that were never elected by the faculty at large, and who were now in line to be senate president if a vacancy occurred. A vacancy occurred.
So, what happened? The new senate president announced during the summer that he was moving out of state for personal reasons and would be resigning. This senate’s bylaws state that the 1st VP becomes president, and if the 1st VP is unable or unwilling to serve, then the 2nd VP becomes president. Their bylaws are pretty clear, and the transition should have been orderly. It was not orderly.
The 1st VP, who was out of the country at the time the senate president resigned, initially responded by email that she wasn’t willing to serve “at this time.” The 2nd VP then responded that she was willing to serve, and apparently assumed she was the senate president because of the email sent by the 1st VP. However, upon further deliberation, the 1st VP stated that she was willing to serve as president in accordance with their bylaws. That should have been the end of it. That was not the end of it.
The 2nd VP did not accept this and subsequently approached the faculty union and filed a grievance against the college president for allowing this situation to exist. The union obliged, and the college president took the grievance seriously, despite the fact that academic senates are independent public agencies whose organizational structure is outside the purview of college or district administrations3. As a result, there was a dispute between two appointed vice presidents over succession. The union chapter leadership interfered with internal senate matters by filing a grievance, presumably with the expectation that the college president would (improperly) decide the question of succession. But most importantly, the business of the senate, and thus the business of the college, was not moving forward.
At the heart of this situation were four problems: (1) inherent but unforeseen flaws in the senate’s constitution and bylaws; (2) disagreement over whether or not decisions expressed in email exchanges are binding; (3) union interference in internal senate organizational matters; and (4) a college president who took the grievance seriously. While each of these is a serious problem, the focus of this article is on the issues with the officer succession plan in their bylaws.
To this senate’s credit, their bylaws are very clear about who succeeds whom when there are vacancies in the presidency and the vice presidencies, and they are also very clear about how VP vacancies are filled if one of them fills a vacant presidency. And it is certain that no one anticipated such a situation as described above occurring. Certainly, a newly elected senate president resigning less than two months into his term is unusual, and if the bylaws had been followed without argument, then everything would have been settled.
In an attempt to settle the succession dispute, there was discussion about suspending the bylaws to allow for a special presidential election as the bylaws had no such provision. Another proposal called for suspending the bylaws, holding a special election, and allowing the 1st and 2nd VP to serve as co-presidents during the period between suspension of the bylaws and the special election. The suspension of the bylaws of this senate was problematic because:
- The clause that allows for bylaw suspension is not in their bylaws, which is the proper place for such a clause, but in their constitution. Even worse, their constitution allows their bylaws to be suspended by majority vote, not the standard two-thirds majority. Because of the placement of the suspension clause in the constitution, removal of this clause requires a vote by the faculty at large, rather than a vote by the senate.
- The bylaws suspension clause is written such that the bylaws in their entirety would be suspended, rather than specific clauses being suspended. Bylaws should only be suspended in extraordinary cases (which this case certainly is), but provision should be made to suspend specific bylaws, not to suspend the bylaws wholesale.
- If their bylaws had been suspended, they would have had no officers because their officers are not enumerated in their constitution. That is a serious problem for any organization, but especially for public agencies such as academic senates.
- Senates (or any parliamentary body) cannot enact provisions that violate their governing documents. The proposals to call a special election and to allow for co-presidents were out of order because neither provision is allowed by their bylaws and constitution.
However, the most fundamental flaw was that the proposals to suspend the bylaws were “workarounds” that attempted to find a solution to this situation without actually insisting that their bylaws be followed. It is vital for senates to be committed to following the procedures in their governing documents and not seek alternatives for the sake of expediency.
Another issue involved disputes over what constitutes official resignation of an office or notification declining to serve in an office. The senate’s bylaws state that a vacancy exists if “the person holding the position announces his or her resignation to the Academic Senate or submits it in writing to the Senate President or to the appropriate committee chair.” (The latter applies to committee appointees.) The mechanism for official resignation is not clear. Is a resignation submitted in the form of a signed letter delivered to the senate secretary? Is a mass email announcement sufficient? Is a verbal announcement sufficient? Because of this lack of specificity, there was a dispute about when the senate president’s resignation was official.
Furthermore, the bylaws state that 2nd VP succeeds “to the office of the President for the duration of the unexpired term if the presidency becomes vacant during a term and the Vice President of Academic Policy (1st VP) is unable or unwilling to assume the duties of the President.” The problems here are two-fold. First, there is nothing in their bylaws that states what constitutes official notification or determination that the 1st VP is “unable or unwilling” to be president, and it is unclear who makes the determination that the 1st VP is “unable or unwilling” to serve. Second, there is nothing stated about this succession in the section of their bylaws on vacancies. So, while it is one of the duties of the 2nd VP to succeed to the presidency in the event of a vacancy and an unwillingness of the 1st VP to serve, this needs to be addressed explicitly in the section of the bylaws that deals with vacancies.
Ultimately, this senate voted to determine whether or not the 1st VP’s initial decision to decline the presidency by email constituted a binding decision. They determined that this was not a binding decision on the part of the 1st VP and determined that she was indeed the senate president. While it was unfortunate that the determination of who was senate president came down to a vote over intent, one positive outcome was that the senate voted and made a determination on who should be president without working around their bylaws. Another positive outcome was the recognition by the senate leadership for the need to revise their bylaws to address some of the issues that arose in this dispute. They are currently working to make these revisions.
In the end, it is vital that all who serve on academic senates in any capacity recognize that they are faculty leaders that are entrusted with a public good. Being a senate leader is not a right: It is a privilege that comes with enormous responsibilities. Faculty have been granted in law the collective professional responsibility to do the work that improves their colleges, that allows their students to be successful, and that makes the communities that their institutions serve proud of the work they do. Unclear, poorly understood, or poorly implemented succession plans can cause academic senates to become dysfunctional. A dysfunctional academic senate causes faculty apathy, which in turn causes low faculty participation in college governance. Those few remaining faculty who are dedicated to participation in governance work can burn out, and soon the college faces a faculty leadership capacity crisis that can result in accreditation sanctions. In this time when the legal role of academic senates is under assault, it is vital that faculty ensure that their senates are well-functioning organizations with clear succession plans that allow them to remain focused on doing the work of the college on academic and professional matters.
It is important that local senates review their governing documents and analyze them for potential problems . When doing so, the following questions should be considered :
- Is the process for electing officers clear?
- Is the succession plan for vacancies clear and does it account for contingencies?
- Is there a provision for special elections? If so, under what circumstances are special elections allowed?
- Is there a provision for a referendum to allow for flaws in the constitution to be corrected immediately?
- Is there a provision for suspending the bylaws? If so, is it general or specific?
- Is there clarity on what constitutes an official resignation or notification to the senate? If so, who receives the official notification?
As senates address these questions , it is recommended that they:
- Review their existing clear succession plans by working through possible scenarios to determine what could go wrong. No scenario is too far-fetched;
- Educate their senators and the faculty at large on the importance of adhering to their senate’s governing documents rather than seeking expedient solutions to difficult situations;
- Educate the faculty and the administration on the fact that the senate is a public agency entrusted with doing the business of the college on academic and professional matters on behalf of their publicly elected governing board, and that this is a responsibility not to be trivialized.
1. Kim Harrell and Cynthia Napoli-Abella Reiss, “Beyond the Classroom: Fostering Local and Statewide Engagement in Our Faculty,” Rostrum (June 2013); 1-3
2. Empowering Local Senates: Roles and Responsibilities of and Strategies for an Effective Senate, ASCCC paper, Spring 2007.
3 From Title 5 §53202:
(c) The governing board of a district shall recognize the academic senate and authorize the faculty to:
(1) Fix and amend by vote of the full-time faculty the composition, structure, and procedures of the academic senate.
(2) Provide for the selection, in accordance with accepted democratic election procedures, the members of the academic senate.
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