BCC faculty pledges to ethics code

By on January 11, 2008

Bergen Community College wants to require students and staff to pledge to “embrace and celebrate differing perspectives” and help the “less fortunate,” but some faculty members and free speech advocates say the oath is unconstitutional and smacks of political correctness run amok.

A proposed “responsibility code” was drafted as a response to what school administrators say is a rise in “uncivil” behavior—including the use of language that is demeaning to women and minorities—on the Paramus campus.

But critics say the pledge is far too broad. Faculty leaders shown a draft of the code this week vowed Thursday to fight its adoption.

“It’s unenforceable. Forget the faculty signing this,” said Peter Helff, president of the faculty union.

Professor George Cronk, a professor of philosophy and religion who also is an attorney, said the code is an attack on freedom of conscience. “It asks you to pledge things that no rational person would. You can’t require people to respect one another. … There are some views that don’t deserve respect,” he said, citing ideologies such as fascism.

A spokeswoman for a national group that champions free speech on campus said the pledge seems extreme. “A public school has no right to reach into students’ minds and tell them what to think,” said Samantha Harris, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Similar policies have been struck down by the courts.

Harris said colleges can aspire to ideals but they can’t stifle their students’ freedom of expression and conscience. “A public university can’t mandate civility,” she said. “It’s a popular type of censorship on campus and one that often flies under the radar.”

The so-called civility movement has gained momentum on campuses during the last decade and many, including most in New Jersey, have included statements on civility in student handbooks. Those statements generally express schools’ inclusiveness and tolerance for other viewpoints. (Schools, including Bergen, have separate codes of conduct dealing with unlawful behavior, plagiarism and cheating.)

Bergen would have been the first school in the state to require students to agree to such a specific code of civility.

Bergen’s president, R. Jeremiah Ryan, said last month he hoped to implement the code during the upcoming semester and a spokeswoman for the college said earlier this week that the code would be mandatory.

“The pledge would not be optional,” Susan Baechtel, a college spokeswoman, said Wednesday. “If you don’t agree, it is President Ryan’s vision that you cannot attend the school.”

She said students who violated the code would be subject to judiciary hearings now reserved for offenses such as assault.

But after hearing from faculty, administrators on Thursday were backing off a bit. Ryan said the proposal was a starting point for discussion with faculty and students, and that the college, ultimately, may opt for an “aspirational” statement as opposed to a code.

Concepts such as tolerance and respect—unlike legally defined behaviors such as harassment and defamation—are too broad and legally undefined and have been struck down by the court, Harris said.

Improper curb on speech

A federal magistrate in November barred the University of California from enforcing its civility standard, saying it was an unconstitutional restriction on speech because it had been used to investigate or discipline students, such as the College Republicans whose members stomped on two flags bearing the name of Allah during an anti-terrorism rally at San Francisco State last year.

Opponents of speech codes argue that some of the important movements of our time—such as civil rights—were considered uncivil by those in power. “Impassioned speech is not always polite or civil,” said Harris.

Requiring students to make a pledge seems over the top considering that the courts have ruled that even the Pledge of Allegiance can’t be legally required, Harris said. “It’s crossing a line. A public university cannot mandate students’ attitudes.”

But Baechtel, from Bergen, said the school was working to “balance First Amendment rights with a need to bring civility into an institution.”

College administrators say they’ve seen an uptick in bad behavior on campus. “Students are acting out in really uncivil ways,” Ryan said. “Classroom faculty say in the last two years it has really ratcheted up. The high schools tell us the same things.”

The word “uncivil” seems almost genteel when talking about the some of the behavior. At Bergen, faculty hear loud and obscene conversations in hallways and even classrooms, and there have been a few instances of racist graffiti. A student upset with her grade threatened to break a teacher’s face.

Differing approaches

The problems are not unique to the Paramus school. Officials at Rutgers University had to apologize for football fans who heckled the Navy team with obscenities, and William Paterson University began a campaign to dissuade students from using racial epithets.

WPU addresses the issue in its orientation and student code of conduct. Two years ago, the school also put together an online workshop for teachers on managing disruptive students in the classroom.

Karen Pennington, vice president for student development and campus life at Montclair State University, said civility codes can be tricky. “The difficulty is that civility codes or statements often are seen as pushing a point of view … when people are trying to do just the opposite,” she said. “The difficult thing is trying to decide how far you push in making people feel secure on campus without making another group feel oppressed.”

Montclair has a statement but “it’s really not part of our code, it’s a framework … it calls for an atmosphere of understanding. But it’s not a pledge we hold people to.”

Judiciary proceedings against students accused of disruptive and destructive behavior at Bergen—from verbal and physical assaults to graffiti—spiked to 125 incidents in 2007. The number is still relatively small considering there are 15,000 students at Bergen, “but the trend line is up and we’re concerned about that,” Ryan said.

“The instances have been a wake-up call and we have to make it a learning experience,” Ryan said.

Charles Bordogna, who runs a diversity program on campus, said policies such as the proposed code are a start. “We want to be going beyond the word ‘tolerance’ to respecting individuals for who they are.”

But Helff, who heads the faculty, said the code was a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“I’ve been there 38 years and I’ve never sworn to embrace anybody,” said Helff. “Next I’ll have to be nice to administrators?”

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