Civility and civility codes are becoming a prominent issue in higher education, and Joan W. Scott offered a thoughtful commentary on the topic in a recent issue of The Nation. Her take on university civility standards (published or otherwise) is that they are being (mis)used to silence, retaliate, or exclude faculty with unpopular opinions and to enhance administrative power. Here’s a snippet:
“Civility” has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.
But what exactly is civility—and is it a prerequisite for a vibrant intellectual climate? As it turns out, the definitions on offer are porous and vague. . . .
Scott’s article attracted a lot of posted comments, including those related to the substantive political disputes underlying some of the controversies discussed in Scott’s article. Among them are Israel vs. Palestine, so you can guess the intensity of the emotions shared online. I posted a comment on the topic more generally, and it was later published as a letter to the editor in the print edition of the magazine:
Thank you for this article. It raises important but very subtle and tricky issues. On the one hand, I think it is incumbent upon all of us in academe to do our best not to be jerks through the kind of gratuitous incivility that helps to stereotype academicians as entitled, socially challenged brats. On the other hand, our dialogue does not have to be devoid of human emotion and passion. Honest disagreements sometimes go through stages of incivility — harsh, even angry words exchanged — on the path toward healthier engagement.
On an institutional level, civility codes can be used to silence or even bully dissenters. When one is disagreeing with the mainstream view, or a position imposed from on high, it can arouse passion, and sometimes emotions flare. As this piece suggests, university civility codes can easily be turned on people who are criticizing and protesting injustice, wrongful behavior, and bad decisions. Universities that impose civility codes are usually those that cannot manage by thoughtful, inclusive, quality leadership. Instead, they must mandate manners and punish those who venture beyond superficial politeness.