Civility problems cause uproar on college campuses

April 25, 2011

For a group of women at Yale, the last straw came in October, when fraternity pledges marched on campus shouting a sexually offensive slogan. The women complained to the Department of Education, which began an investigation by its Office of Civil Rights.

And that has ignited a national debate. Two of the 16 women who signed the complaint, which has not been made public, told morning news shows that Yale discriminates against women by allowing a "sexually hostile climate" to exist. Bloggers, civil libertarians and anonymous posters on Yale’s student paper and elsewhere acknowledge the comments are sexist but say free speech is the real issue.

The incident also reflects concerns being raised more and more on campuses nationwide: What ever happened to common courtesy? And what to do about it?

There are plenty of examples of questionable behavior to go around. The secret videotaping last September of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi in a sexual encounter with another man springs to mind. Last month, a UCLA student posted a YouTube video, in which she tells Asian students who talk on cellphones in the library to "use American manners." That prompted accusations of racism on Internet posts – and, she says, death threats.

Richard Wells, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, says a host of factors contributes to all the ugliness: The ease and perceived anonymity of technology. Increased campus diversity. Alcohol. The political climate.

"We’ve got to quit treating these things like they’re isolated events," says Wells, who in February hosted a two-day workshop on the topic for leaders from the state’s 26-campus university system. The workshop, called Civility in Everyday Life, was sparked by several incidents last fall across the 26-campus system, including one that started in a bar and ended with the death of a student.

George Mason University lecturer Leslie Morton teaches Professionalism and Civility at George Mason University.

On campuses nationwide, civility has become the mantra. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas in January signed off on a Statement of Civility that embraces "the articulation of unpopular and unsettling ideas" and "promotes the rights, safety, dignity, and value of every individual." At Rutgers, plans for a two-year initiative called Project Civility were already in the works when Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. George Mason University last fall launched an elective called Professionalism and Civility.

"We’re trying to encourage respect, tolerance," says George Mason lecturer Leslie Morton, who pitched the idea for the course after employers mentioned unprofessional behavior in internship evaluations."People don’t take time to think about consequences. Who am I hurting? Will this be embarrassing?"

Colleges must walk a fine line. A federal court in 2007 ruled that California State University could not impose a requirement that students "be civil to one another" because the term is too vague.

Yale said it will cooperate with the Education Department investigation, and has formed its own committee, to begin in July, to address the allegations. But some observers say the women have gone too far in arguing that ugly language constitutes a hostile environment that limits their access to educational opportunities.

"When frat boys act badly, you stand up to them, or you ignore them. You start a movement to boycott the idiots," says lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer. "What you see in this complaint is the intolerance of free speech on college campuses."

A related concern has been raised about U.S. House and Senate proposals that would require colleges that receive federal aid to prohibit harassment of students. Critics say the legislation, named for Tyler Clementi, is well-intended but vague and at odds with a 1999 Supreme Court decision. Two students, each charged with two counts of invasion of privacy in the case, have withdrawn from Rutgers.

"However admirable the intentions, the act as written fails to protect student-speech rights and puts administrators in a miserable position," Will Creeley, of the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in a Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed.

At UCLA Alexandra Wallace, the student who posted the YouTube video, also has withdrawn. She was not disciplined, though Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement saying he was "appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments." Commenters on Block’s Facebook page disagree on whether Wallace’s remarks were racist, but one person says she got what she deserved: "When (she) chose to practice her right of free speech, she should have been prepared to face the consequences."

At George Mason, Morton had a teachable moment last month when a squabble between two students over who had dibs on a library study room escalated to the point where one landed in jail on felony abduction charges. Those charges were dropped but the case is being reviewed by campus judicial affairs process. When Morton asked her students how the incident could have been prevented, she says, "Most of the response I got was, ‘They need your class.’ "

But they also acknowledge that it’s easy to point a finger.

"Unless you actually look at yourself in the mirror a minute, you’re not going to know if you’re civil or not," says government major Liam Hennelly, 19, one of Morton’s students. "Most people think they are, but they’re really not."