The issue of civility has become a more interesting subject for debate within and among universities. No less so, it seems, among University administrators and their associated elites. I have written generally about the topic of civility within the academy in the past. See HERE. Others have discussed the issue in the context of movements toward cultures of civility in other universities. See The Order of Civility (Sept. 7, 2014).
The issue appears to have reached the highest levels of administration at Penn State. I include below the "Dear Friends" letter on civility widely circulated and signed or affirmed by a large host of persons holding administrative or related positions at Penn State, a commentary by Onward State and the Penn State President's reply.
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
I would be curious to hear reactions beyond those in Upward State. The letter can be understood from a variety of perspectives and might imply any number of things--but it is unclear whether the virtues of Kremlinology would be useful here.
I only note that beyond its signatories--among whom there was no doubt discussion of some sort, enough to satisfy its participants--I do not recall any discussion of the topic, nor any effort to engage the university community in the premises underlying its message or messages sought to be conveyed in these communications, worthy as they may be. Beyond the basic and quite laudable notion, which ought to be embraced by all, that our social norms posit that social conventions on discourse are a necessary element in discussion among stakeholders in an organization, it is not clear whether respect requires more. It is less clear to what standards the excellent statements produced allude, or who would police them--it certainly ought to be troublesome if the power or prerogative to control the terms of debate and to judge participation for breaches of the boundaries of civility is vested unevenly among those involved in debate. More troublesome perhaps might be a system of civil discourse grounded first in an invitation within a hierarchically arranged system for civil exchange irrespective of place on the hierarchy and second an insistence that only those at the top of the hierarchy were authorized to set the tone, impose boundaries and judge the conformity of expression of those below to standards that they wholly control. It would be useful to consider the approaches of other institutions even as Penn State seeks to assume a leadership role in this area.
I am partial to this definition of civility:
Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored. (Institute for Civility in Government
The difficulty, though, is that civility operates in this context only where there is an equivalence of power relationships, or robust systems of accountability and constraints on discretionary authority to construct a system of civility that conforms to the model formally but which masks a regime of servility, one in which fear of reprisal or marginalization occupies an important place. In any case we should applaud the invitation to begin a discussion on the topic--and for that we can be grateful to those individuals identified in the "Dear Friends" letter.
Perhaps this is a useful topic for a Senate forensic.
A Message from the Leadership at Penn State
September 5, 2014
For decades, few universities could match the considerate manner in which Penn Staters treated both friend and opponent. In particular, to see someone wearing a Penn State T-shirt while traveling was a guarantee of a common bond and warm conversation no matter how distant the location. Today, that rather remarkable bond is under stress.
Unfortunately, there are many examples in every university where differences of opinion lead to incivility. For Penn State, one issue is of particular concern. There are honest disagreements on fundamental issues related to whether our institution acted appropriately, how our institution handled a crisis, and whether the sanctions that resulted are appropriate. Reasonable people can be found on all sides of these issues. The reasons for this disagreement are clear. Much is still left to interpretation and the issues have considerable emotional significance to us all. We are likely never to have the full story. We are equally likely never to reach consensus.
The question is whether a lack of civility in discussing these issues will create a deeper divide, one that alters the remarkable bond that exists between all those who are a part of the Penn State community. Consider just a few examples that you may have also come across – the alumnus who says he lost his best friend over his opinion of the Freeh report; the alumni trustee candidate that faced dozens of unkind comments; the long time donor of time and treasure who no longer feels welcome.
Debate and disagreement are critical constructs in the role of universities in testing ideas and promoting progress on complex issues. But, the leaders of your University at every level, from the administration, faculty, staff and students, are unanimous in deploring the erosion of civility associated with our discourse. Reasonable people disagree, but we can disagree without sacrificing respect. The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish, but we are stronger if we can argue and debate without degrading others.
Today, civility is an issue that arises in many areas of campus debate. Some may argue that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on blogs or by acrimonious national politics. We cannot afford to follow their lead, not if we are to serve our students as role models, not if we expect to continue to attract the outstanding volunteers who serve our University in so many ways, and not if we wish to have Penn Staters take our University to new levels of excellence.
Respect is a core value at Penn State University. We ask you to consciously choose civility and to support those whose words and actions serve to promote respectful disagreement and thereby strengthen our community.
Members of the President’s Council (unanimous)
Members of the Academic Leadership Council (unanimous)
Members of the University Faculty Senate's Advisory Committee (unanimous)
University Staff Advisory Council Executive Officers (unanimous)
Student leadership (unanimous)
This email was sent to you by the Penn State Office of the President, 201 Old Main, University Park, PA 16802.
What follows is the relevant portion of the reporting from Outward State (President Barron, Penn State Leadership Send Letter To Penn State Community Asking For Civility, Sept. 5, 2014):
In a letter and video sent in the middle of the night, President Barron and the rest of Penn State’s leadership asked the Penn State community to act with civility when discussing differences of opinion in issues related to the university’s handling of the Sandusky scandal.
“There are honest disagreements on fundamental issues related to whether our institution acted appropriately, how our institution handled a crisis, and whether the sanctions that resulted are appropriate,” Barron writes. “Reasonable people can be found on all sides of these issues…The question is whether a lack of civility in discussing these issues will create a deeper divide, one that alters the remarkable bond that exists between all those who are a part of the Penn State community.”
It is widely believed that integrity monitor George Mitchell’s second annual report to the NCAA on Penn State’s compliance will be released today, which many expect to affect Penn State’s football sanctions and could explain the letter’s timing. Mitchell’s first report was released a year ago tomorrow and resulted in the softening of the scholarship reductions.
Barron praises honest discourse on the many issues that stemmed from the Sandusky scandal, but decries the lack of civility shown by parts of the Penn State community in their discussions. For instance, the Board of Trustees displayed great disunity at an August meeting during which discussion on ending compliance with the NCAA’s consent decree caused incivility, but Barron doesn’t do any direct finger-pointing in his letter.
This letter could have been sent for a litany of reasons, and its timing with the Mitchell Report could be totally coincidental. If not, one could surmise Old Main is preempting either a positive or negative Mitchell Report depending on your interpretation, so I’ll stop speculating. Whatever the case, today will be interesting.
The Penn State President responded to that report as follows (from Barron Explains Reasons for Sending Letter, Onward State, Sept. 5, 2014:
Eric Barron responded personally to an email we sent Old Main this morning asking for the motivation behind sending his letter that asked for civility from the Penn State community. He said the letter wasn’t sent because of any event or about a “side” on the issues; rather, it stems from an accumulation of examples, some of which are national.
Here’s his response verbatim:
I thought I would respond to you directly. The letter, which comes from discussion at many levels in the University, arises from several examples. Let me give you a few. This spring, many commencement speakers at different universities across the country were disinvited or bowed out because groups exhibited outrage because they disagreed with actions taken by the speakers. That is incredibly unhealthy given that universities should be places where you are able to discuss ideas freely. Alumni candidates on both sides of the issues related to the Consent degree have complained that they were astounded by the rudeness of some of the comments they received. That is not exactly the message we want when we want to encourage strong candidates to run for office. We have donors who tell me this is a subject to avoid, or if they have spoken out loud about it, that they have lost their “feel good about Penn State” sense. That is a sad story. Some may think this letter is about a “side” or an event, but it isn’t, and it would be good to re-read it. The letter is about making sure we can talk about important issues, and it stems from and accumulation of examples, some of which are national in scope.