Civility and civility codes in higher education

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. . . .

My response

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.


Related posts

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse (2012)

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011)


4 responses

  1. We are in an era of incivility and disrespect as we have failed to teach respectful discourse. After five years of researching and reading, and reading more on workplace inciviltiy and bullying, it is like the Tower of Bable once more. We speak, there is no understanding. We listen and do not comprehend.

  2. Wow…Great article! For the life of me I still do not understand what the Driving Force really is behind incivility in Higher Education. I’ve been studying this for about 5 years now and I still don’t fully get it. But for sure it’s more than just a “personality disorder” by a few twisted individuals. It’s a CULTURE. In fact…the hallmarks of incivility are the same wherever you go or to whatever school you visit.
    And by any rational standards…it really is insane. Serious.
    People (teachers) that should want to pass on information to the next generation and have a heart for other people (students) are the very ones that are destroying the Learning Environment. Have we allowed some kind of evil in our classrooms and school administrations? Just sayin…
    Recently…I was just reminded of this when checking into some schools for a Masters Degree. Holy cow!….Relax people! Here….have a beer and lets talk about this….
    Anyhow…thank you Dr. Yamada for this post and what you do. Eventually the pendulum seems to always swing the other way. Hopefully…

  3. My posting privileges on my college’s main listserv for campus communicating was recently restored. They had been suspended for a posting about the “Dirty Linen” of my department and the college administration. I am the only tenured professor to have posting privileges suspended, with the threat of permanent banishment. There is no question of the veracity of the post (and earlier posts) but the listserv’s Powers That Be (The Hunter Senate and an entity known as the Faculty Delegate Assembly) have imposed a strict censorship (of which they are very proud) about exposing grade scams and bogus Violence in the Workplace Complaints with college administration complicity and other foul practices and uncivil behavior. Some of this has to do with the Chronicle of Higher Ed and NY Times stories about the administrative tactics of the Hunter President, Jennifer Raab. Etcetera.

    I plan to resume posting about academic bullying which is big on my campus and plan to try to be a lot more savvy though the censorship has been increasing progressively. My next post is a link to this article.

  4. Pingback: Wooly Bully Update – Posted on Hunter-L « The WORD Blog

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