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ACS Comment: Units, keep away from unwritten rules

by Keith Vitense, Chair, ACS Committee on Constitution and Bylaws
June 30, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 24

Keith Vitense.

Credit: Courtesy of Keith Vitense
Keith Vitense.

I’ve always been a rules guy. I umpired my first American Legion baseball game when I was 15 years old—and in retrospect it was an inauspicious start. I’m still an active high school football referee and senior softball umpire, which is probably why stories at the beginning of the 2022 Major League Baseball season about teams breaking “unwritten rules” really got my attention.

The phrase unwritten rules may be one of my favorite oxymorons—right up with “military intelligence” (I’m a US Air Force veteran), “exact measurement,” and “fun run.” Unwritten rules fall primarily into two categories. The first category has to do with customs, such as when the MLB teams committed actions that are not normally done but do not involve breaking any rules. These will typically be things that are considered impolite, such as unnecessarily running up a score to ensure that your team wins.

The second, and more worrisome category of unwritten rules, involve activities that are in conflict with the rules. When I was growing up in South Dakota, in an area where the nearest grocery store was about 20 mi (32 km) away, my mom used the phrase “five will slide, but six will stick” regarding highway speed limits. She believed that if you were driving 5 mi/h over the speed limit the highway patrol would not stop you, but 6 mi/h would lead to a ticket for speeding. However, by law, you can receive a ticket for driving 1 mi/h over the limit.

There are several options for any unit to update their bylaws.

The American Chemical Society’s Committee on Constitution and Bylaws (C&B) is charged with oversight of the ACS governing documents that include (but are not limited to) the constitution, bylaws, and standing rules. Because these are living documents, and are subject to change, C&B’s role is to ensure that any proposed changes are not in conflict with other areas of the ACS governing documents. For example, if someone petitioned to add the requirement to the presidential succession rules that in years ending in the digit 7, the society’s president must be left-handed, C&B is obligated to review the governing documents to identify all areas in the ACS governing documents that are affected, or may be affected, by the petition and to make modifications, as needed, to accomplish the desire of the petitioners. C&B does not judge the validity of the change—we simply ensure that if enacted, the change will not cause a conflict in other areas of the ACS governing documents.

C&B also assists local sections, divisions, and international chemical sciences chapters to modify their bylaws. Although these units are independent entities, they must have bylaws that are aligned with the ACS governing documents. However, sometimes the bylaws conflict with the ACS governing documents, because those documents have changed.

One of the most prevalent drivers of the change in how people do business is the evolution in technology that allows us to communicate in ways that were once limited to the realms of science fiction. An example is email. In many cases, email has replaced postal mail for both business and personal communications. However, if a unit’s bylaws require voting “by mail,” this may or may not support voting by email—depending on specific language in the bylaws regarding how the voting is to be accomplished. Prior to C&B’s vote, units were using unwritten rules that allowed “mail” to include “email” in a unit’s dated bylaws as long as words such as “envelope” and “postmark” were not included.

Since I became chair of C&B, the majority of our work has involved reviewing local section, division, and international chemical sciences chapter bylaws. As such, C&B developed a model bylaws template for each unit. The templates are written such that units can choose from options to best fit their needs and remain consistent with the ACS governing documents.

There are several ways for any unit to update their bylaws. The first is simply to review your current bylaws and make any changes that you believe are necessary, while the second is to review the model bylaws template for your unit and make the appropriate changes. The third option is to answer a series of questions provided by C&B regarding how your unit would like to be structured, and C&B will generate proposed bylaws for you. More information on these processes can be found at Please note that implementation of these new bylaws can occur only after your unit has voted (using the current bylaw procedures) to accept the proposed amendments and after certification by C&B.

If you are a member of a local section, division, or international chemical sciences chapter that has not recently updated its bylaws, I encourage you to speak up at future meetings to determine if there is interest in a bylaw review or update. This review or update can be initiated simply by sending an email to to ask questions, request additional information, or receive more detailed instructions regarding the process.

As time passes, things change. Make sure that you keep up with the changes by updating your bylaws to ensure that you are not operating using unwritten rules.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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