The ABCs of Campus Kindness

Maria Shine Stewart offers a plethora of tips for making the campus work place a better place.

October 25, 2013

If only life on campus were so simple that an “ABC” device could head off all the big problems. Yet, prompt attention to small issues can prevent at least some issues from morphing into something harder to fix. Browse higher education headlines and see how often a human relations glitch or an unkindness snowballed; simple flurries turned into major squalls. I offer these A through Z tips after 30-plus years of working in academe. If you think of additional suggestions, please chime in.

Alumni assertiveness. Colleges wine and dine their graduates to sustain good will and/or solicit donations. Nevertheless, few alumni lack memories of frustrations that rankled them while they were in the undergraduate or graduate ranks. Perhaps then they felt little voice to improve that condition.

Tip: Though time may have passed since you graduated, speak truth to power; you now wield some of that power yourself. Call attention to an issue that troubled you. Campuses might actively solicit frank opinions of alumni in order to improve.

Better boards, presidents, campus leaders. It’s an honor and a responsibility to serve at this level; typically those in such positions have served visibly in other venues. With accomplishment comes ego. Sometimes boards and chief executives work harmoniously; other times, they clash. Styles of decision making that reap good results elsewhere may not instantly mesh on campus.

Tip: Know your institution – really know it. Adapt. Navigate conflict. Check your ego at the door.

Collaborating with counseling. For struggling students, campus counselors, psychologists, social workers and others with listening ears are a lifeline. When tragedies unfold, often we hear questions like: “Was there a mental health concern? Was it being addressed?”

Tip: Do not play ostrich at your school. Intellectual development, creative growth and auxiliary endeavors promote a smooth-running campus machine; promoting some dimensions of campus well being is a team sport.

Dear dogs and other critters. Who doesn’t enjoy a dog on campus? Or perhaps a lift in your hectic day is watching that friendly campus squirrel … even if it’s a little too bold?

Tip: Be reasonable about interacting with animals.

Easing east-west-north-south passages. How is your signage? It is not the fault of the bewildered if it’s small or subtle. One morning, three meticulously dressed visitors in very high heels showed up outside my classroom. They were looking for a seminar several blocks away.

Tip: A picture is worth a thousand words. Design signs for outsiders, not for those already here.

Faculty with finesse. Whether you are climbing a career ladder – with all the pressure – or working temporary jobs (with all that pressure), remember that you are the face of your institution.

Tip: There has been some debate on this site on how kind is kind enough. Be your best self.

Greeting guests, who differ from visitors in my book (because you invited them), is good for your school. Their presence is energizing.

Tip: Don’t let your campus remain unshared with “outsiders.” Resolve the parking hassle, though. See also, “Value visitors.”

Hailing helpers at all levels. Express gratitude to staff, administrative staff, and anyone less visible in the campus montage.

Tip: Say “I noticed your good work.” And “thank you.”

Incorporating I.T. If you question why this area gets its own boldface here, just ask yourself how far you’d get without this group. The best truly do collaborate and are not patronizing or vague.

Tip: Fund and train this area appropriately.

Jesting with jokesters. Themed parties, comedians, teachers ad-libbing … all carry the potential for a jolt. There is a gulf between humor and horror; try not to fall in.

Tip: Gauge your audience’s capacity for humor, and retreat if necessary.

Kids on campus usually are awed by the surroundings and a welcome sight for most of us.

Tip: If responsible for children, be responsible. There is nothing satisfying about seeing a child jumping into a settling elevator or whizzing recklessly down a stairwell. Kids can get rambunctious; encourage their “inside voices,” too.

Loving libraries. Do not let your campus library turn into a bare study lounge or media storage center.

Tip: Before that final purge of books and journals, ask: Is there enough left in the library so learning could continue during a power outage?

Mascots. I had a boss once who got a smile – ok, laughs -- out of us with his critique of the campus mascot.

Tips: If you have to explain too much in defense of your mascot, perhaps times have really changed enough since _____ was worthy of collective affection.

Know your neighbors. “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed. But town/gown relationships are typically under-discussed.

Tip: Let neighbors serve as mirrors of your campus, and take a good look at that image. Don’t break a mirror. Build community, and if you are not sure how – ask.

Oh, ogres. I am using the strongest word I can without becoming unkind. On your campus, is there “that person” who gets away with tantrums, rudeness, outbursts, even intimidation of others? I have encountered ogres in academia from staff, faculty and even student ranks.

Tip: Document egregious behavior. Study workplace bullying and harassment. Don’t be around such people alone if you can avoid it. Narcissism does exist.

Praising police and security. This tough job is rarely acknowledged.

Tip: Thank the security force if it is of help to you. The pressure is on.

Quibbling with quibblers. We all might balance healthy skepticism with an open-minded stance, and those we consider “quibblers” pop up everywhere, from classroom to boardroom. They may or may not express their views with civility.

Tip: Don’t cave on basic principles. If a quibbler puts forth a valid complaint or new idea, take it under advisement. “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” – Mark Twain

Rats and other rodents. If you are thinking: “Those have no place on campus!” know that I agree. On one campus, an overflowing trash bin was the first thing I saw one morning. More innocuously (?), Prof. So-and-So used to feed our departmental mouse while the bait – which the mouse astutely avoided – remained untouched.

Tip: Use common sense.

Seeking students. They are the heart of the campus and might save some of their heart for themselves and for one another while celebrating intellectual and career development.

Tip: Don’t assume what your students’ concerns are. Promote dialogue.

Treating the transient. At any given moment, a portion of your population – from faculty through student – is passing through.

Tip: Transparency can help all members of the community get the basics they need and contribute to your campus.

Understand your underbelly. Every campus has something ominous in its history, or going on right now, or about to happen. The best attitude toward the shadow side of campus life is to cast some light on it, honestly.

Tip: Don’t kid yourself about personal or institutional perfection. Keep your feet on the ground even while aspirations soar.

Value visitors. Most campus visitors are enthusiastic. A fair share of parents visit; they may not know their way around.

Tip: Be sure that on the weekend, especially, there is a visitor rest point and ideally a human to help out.

Wandering websites. Ah, uplifting, smiling faces. Gorgeous campus shots. Wait….how do I find that….?

Tip: Though many are web-savvy, don’t overestimate the ease with which one can whiz through your website. You know how ... but have a novice try it.

Ex-asperating photocopiers and printers. Even in a virtual world, something has to be printed out.

Tip: I have seen many driven to distraction, unable to print a project with a looming deadline. Arrange a backup technology plan, and another backup for that one.


Tip: Be kind to yourself.

Zero left to read ... but what have you left undone that could create a kinder campus? Steps to improve adjunct conditions? Efforts at outreach to students slipping between the cracks? A community project?

Tip: Mobilize.

Readers: Kindly offer more tips below.

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Maria Shine Stewart

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