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Are Your Unit’s Bylaws and Procedures Equitable? Eleven Suggestions

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership and Management

Are Your Unit’s Bylaws and Procedures Equitable? Eleven Suggestions

We all want the organizations we lead to be as inclusive and equitable as possible. To that end, we have developed DEI mission statements, empowered equity committees, created antiracist book discussion groups, and funded consultants to engage our faculty and staff in discussions about implicit biases, microaggressions, and inclusive hiring practices. We have developed equity audits that help us assess how well we are addressing our students’ needs. We have revised how we advertise and recruit for faculty positions, broadening how we advertise to create more diverse candidate pools. Those of us at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) know that this work is important and difficult and that we can’t delay in moving the process of improving our practices forward. But we also know that we hire new faculty and staff only occasionally and that as important as recruiting diverse hires is, ensuring that we have created a work environment in which everyone we hire feels welcome and a sense of belonging is the more immediate and ongoing work.

Creating a welcoming environment is sometimes a challenge. Old habits and unconscious biases can be hard to identify and change. Annual anonymous climate surveys may help us spotlight areas we need to address. Another important element in advancing an equitable and inclusive climate is conducting an audit of existing bylaws, policy documents, and governance documents, as well as administrative practices and unwritten rules, to determine whether our college or department is unwittingly inhibiting the inclusivity and sense of belonging that we seek to create for all members of our organization. (The three of us are extremely grateful that our college’s Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Change is about to launch such an audit.)

A policy audit needs to involve gathering feedback from all stakeholders, and it needs to be conducted by individuals who have the capacity to reflect honestly on that feedback. It needs to be based on data, and it needs to be systemic. While we might appreciate the perspective that hiring external consultants could bring to a policy audit, often our institutions have some resources on which we can rely. Cultural Proficiencies for Racial Equity: A Framework, published jointly by the American Library Association and the Association of Research Librarians (August 2022), provides one comprehensive starting point, even for those of us who are not librarians.[1] Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture—Still Here” provides another terrific framework for thinking through a policy audit.

Locally, we have been wrestling with the following questions: What should such an audit include? What policies and practices should it be looking for? How can we ensure that we gather all the perspectives we need to make our audit comprehensive, thorough, and successful? Here is our current list of at least partial answers to these questions.

  1. Review all governance documents, including those for committees and subcommittees. Generally, we all take great care in developing our strategic planning documents to ensure that we are being inclusive, but most of the documents that govern our behavior are ones that we inherit from our predecessors. When was the last time you reviewed your departmental bylaws, for instance? It is at the department, committee, and subcommittee level that most of the administrative work of an academic department gets done, and those units tend to operate by established practice and membership convenience rather than by formal rules and procedures. It is easy for inequity to creep into such groups’ practices.
  2. Consider all practices for electing or appointing individuals to leadership roles and committee memberships. Who gets to come to the table is, of course, key to ensuring inclusivity. And while electing representatives to positions may seem like the best way to ensure a diversity of voices, care needs to be taken to prevent elections from becoming popularity contests. Consider how individuals are nominated (or self-nominated). What kind of outreach occurs to encourage minoritized faculty to stand for election? Is it possible to conduct nominations privately so that individuals with diverse voices don’t need to feel like they are being aggressive if they nominate someone to oppose a popular candidate? Are there policies or practices (and compensation) in place to encourage individuals to come forward for leadership roles? What safeguards are in place to ensure equity in appointed positions?
  3. Consider what policies your unit doesn’t have or existing policies that your team may be unaware of. Your university as a whole almost certainly has policies that address equity, inclusivity and belonging, but how explicitly do your unit’s policies reference them? How easy do your unit’s policies make it for members of your team to access and make use of your institution’s discrimination, parental leave, wellness, accommodation, and other policies that support equitable work environments? As Rob Kelly has noted, your team members may simply be unaware of all the resources and policies that would support them.
  4. Review annual review policies and practices closely. Are you unintentionally rewarding or disadvantaging particular subsets of your faculty and staff? If your unit controls the criteria for annual review, look closely at the expectations and practices. It may be that while on paper non-tenure-track faculty are required to participate in two professional development activities per year to achieve an “excellent” rating on their review, in practice you may have some faculty completing five or six such activities per year because they have fewer family obligations or financial limitations than other faculty. And their overperformance may affect how you evaluate the faculty who are able to do only what your performance documents specify.
  5. Review how leadership bodies report on their actions and discussions. Typically, openness leads to more accountability and more inclusive behavior. Consider how easy it is for members of your unit to access committee notes or minutes and how you accommodate feedback from department members on committee actions and decisions. Password-protected websites, internal newsletters, shared documents, and open office hours all provide opportunities to share the deliberations of your leadership groups and invite other voices to respond to their work.
  6. Consider the role of “at large” members or whether there are strategies available to ensure inclusivity. Even with elections that encourage broad representation, there may be times when leadership councils or committees are less broadly representative than the composition of the unit as a whole. It may be desirable in some governance bodies to permit the chief administrator or dean to appoint an at-large member or two to broaden the diversity of a committee. Make sure that the at-large members know that they have been selected to bring specific expertise to the group and that these appointments are not used to tokenize groups of faculty. Having more kinds of voices at the table should ensure that the decisions you make benefit from the expertise and experience of all members of your unit.
  7. Reflect on meeting facilitation practices: How do you ensure that all voices are heard? Of course, having diverse voices at the table doesn’t ensure inclusivity if the same voices are the only ones permitted to speak or be heard. Allowing no one to speak twice before everyone has spoken once may work to facilitate listening to all voices on a small committee, but other strategies are needed to ensure diverse voices are heard in larger groups. Depending on the feedback received from stakeholders about the unit’s meeting facilitation practices, it may be useful to lean on the expertise of experts elsewhere on campus or on consultants to provide professional development to the leadership team.
  8. Reflect on the unintended consequences of certain meeting times or practices. The pandemic has caused us to reflect on virtually all our meeting practices, and this is a good thing. Remember that requiring in-person meetings may discriminate against the immunocompromised, late afternoon meetings may disadvantage those who care for school-aged children, meetings in coffee shops may make people feel that they are required to spend money, and early morning meetings may be a struggle for those who are wrangling toddlers to get them to daycare.
  9. Review committee memberships to ensure that no one is being asked to do a disproportionate amount of work. It is well known that faculty of color and women do a disproportionate amount of service and emotional work in PWIs. Are you contributing to the problem? Even if your unit contains only one or two Black or brown, queer, or women faculty, that doesn’t mean that they have to be on every committee within your department. White faculty need to do the work to educate themselves so that they can better understand the concerns that their colleagues of color might bring to the table and attune themselves to the structures of racism that mark our institutions. We encourage reading basics like How to Be an Anti-Racist and Presumed Incompetent (both volumes) as a start.
  10. Consider the opportunities your unit provides for individuals to raise concerns confidentially. No matter how thoroughly you review your policies, no matter how intentionally you revise your practices, there will come moments when members of your unit have questions or concerns they aren’t comfortable bringing to you openly or directly. You will need policies and practices that encourage the voices of all your unit’s stakeholders to be heard and that ensure a response to concerns that are raised. Your institution’s ombuds office is a great resource for issues that require formal action, but there are times when something as simple as an anonymous Google Form can help address individual concerns.
  11. Consider how transparency at all administrative levels is maintained. Make sure that your bylaws, strategic planning documents, departmental and committee minutes, reports from leadership meetings, budget discussions, and other important documents, are available and accessible, and welcome questions about them.

These suggestions will not address interpersonal microaggressions, and they won’t change the diversity of your existing team, but they should help to create structures that will foster inclusivity and openness. They should help to improve the climate of inclusivity within your college or department and lay the foundation for moving forward in a way that creates a stronger sense of belonging. And repeating your policy audit at regular intervals may ensure that your unit continues to move toward a climate in which all members of the team feel they belong.

[1] We appreciate Dean Irene Herold for recommending this resource.

Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Stephanie Rizzi, MA, is the interim associate dean of University College and an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Christopher N. Jackson, MA, is an associate professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry within Virginia Commonwealth University’s University College and the current chair of University College’s Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Change.


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