Bylaws: Deliberative Decision-Making in Departmental Practice

Oct 5, 2021

Mary Claire Loftus, Chair, Communication Studies

Over the 19 years that I have been a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies, we have revised our bylaws several times. The structure of our department has changed from existing as a department within a school with a shared major versus an independent department with its own major, from a graduate program with three tracks to a single track to an undergraduate-only program, and these structural changes sometimes meant new structures for making decisions. In the process of a couple of years of particularly difficult decisions, we came to the realization that, though we had paid a lot of attention over the years to the actual mechanism for making a final decision (e.g., straw polls, majority or supermajority votes, secret or open ballots), we needed to attend to the deliberative process we used before the voting began.

In the 2019–2020 academic year, we revised our bylaws again, with the goal of creating processes that would allow faculty members’ voices and unique perspectives to be heard, foster transparency in decision-making, and allow us to adapt processes as we tested them in practice. Fortunately, we were able to draw upon the expertise of Darrin Hicks and Kate Willink (both Communication Studies faculty), and the work they had been doing with the Symposium. We ended up with a new version of our bylaws and a new process for decision-making.

We already had a practice of secret-ballot voting, and we decided to stick with that approach. Unlike our previous bylaws, however, this draft spends a lot more time considering what we do before the vote. We created three main aspects of our process in the new bylaws. First, we specified a multi-step problem-solving process, with separate phases for analyzing the problem, establishing goals, identifying possible solutions, and evaluating solutions. We also created a process-monitor role separate from the chair or meeting facilitator role, to make sure we stay on track with our process.

Second, we included a suggested (but not exhaustive) list of ways to encourage faculty members to voice their ideas. We included randomized speaking order, equal speaking time, anonymous surveys, and non-evaluative brainstorming sessions in our list.

Finally, we instituted a four-question questionnaire to survey faculty members after each meeting. The mean scores for the items are then included on the agenda for the following meeting. The questions address how well the meeting contributed to our purpose and followed our process, as well as a self-evaluation and an evaluation of the meeting facilitation.

Now that we have been working with these bylaws for a year, our meetings run pretty differently than they used to. Getting used to the new model was a bit tricky. We decided to flesh out our four-step process to be sure we were following the discrete steps in order. Though the process felt a bit forced at first—and certainly took us longer to deliberate—we are getting more practiced at identifying which steps might need more attention in regard to different issues. For instance, sometimes the goal of a deliberation process is obvious, and sometimes our options are restricted by outside forces, so we can move more quickly through those phases.

For most issues, we have used randomized speaking order and equal speaking time. I draw names and track time. After a round of turns, I summarize main points, ask for feedback for the summary, and then ask if we need another round before moving on. In our speaking turns, we emphasize our own perspectives on the issues rather than arguing with one another. If opposing views become clear through our speaking round, then we figure out how to address the questions at the root of those views. The post-meeting surveys have been useful to me in identifying when things are going well, and when I might need to handle something differently or follow up on an issue that came up.

As we worked through two successful tenure-line hires last year, a major revision of our undergraduate program, and drafted two more tenure-line job calls, we realized that we may need to establish different processes for different types of decisions we are called upon to make. Since the approach is designed to be revisable, our identification of needed revisions seems to me to be evidence that it is working as we planned. As it stands right now, our process has helped us address difficult issues in meetings and to work toward a strong departmental culture, and I think it will be flexible enough to grow with us in the future.

Read the Amended Decision-Making Bylaws


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