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Is civility a good thing in institutions of higher education? At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just a few years ago, students wore stickers over their mouths saying, “Civility = Silence, Silence = Death.” Other people maintain that acting with civility is crucial for good campus relationships and the proper functioning of our colleges and universities.

The debate has become bogged down in slogans and false dichotomies. Meanwhile, academic leaders—chairs, deans and others—are confronting ongoing challenges that arise when demands for civility appear to clash with those for free speech. In this essay, we’ll consider three underexplored aspects of the debate that may help all of us find better ways to manage issues of civility on our campuses.

Critics of civility, like Kamden Strunk, say that it is a standard unequally applied to nondominant groups to protect hateful and discriminatory attitudes that can and must be challenged in an “uncivil” way: “At the root of this dynamic is the expectation that campuses, and professors, put oppressive, incorrect and dehumanizing views on an even ground with all other perspectives.” Strunk says civility means that while a speaker in the campus’s largest auditorium calls for genocide, those protesting should remain calm and orderly. In the classroom, it means that vehement attacks on one’s humanity should be met with detached and unemotional debate.” And, he adds, “Because of the ways in which ‘civility’ is defined within systems of whiteness and cisheterosexism, claims of incivility are weaponized against marginalized groups to vilify their attempts to claim full human dignity and full equity.”

Defenders of civility, like Cary Nelson, in contrast, say that the accusations of being silenced are overdrawn and that the bounds of civility are broad enough to accommodate sharp criticism and debate: “Civility does not preclude passionate advocacy. It doesn’t preclude devices like irony and humor. Nor does it mean ideas and arguments cannot be strongly expressed and severely criticized.” Nelson goes on, “Civility does not mark the boundaries of free speech protection. But it helps describe how we can most often relate to one another productively. Voluntary civility is the best way to conduct difficult debates, but it is not a limit on permissible speech.”

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, our NCPRE team has developed and validated a new tool, called KINDER, to help colleges and universities evaluate their campus climate around issues of civility, conflict management and identity-based harassment. We hope to give campus leaders better resources for finding areas where high-quality interpersonal interactions already exist and how to learn from them. The survey also highlights areas that they need to work on, whether with their faculty, staff or students.

As with our SOURCE survey on research climate and our AUDiT tool for evaluating the performance of academic departments, we believe that providing leaders with data-driven (and, where appropriate, anonymous) assessments can help them to better understand the ethical and interpersonal quality of their environments as well as to identify underlying issues that participants might not be talking about openly. Such “early-warning” indicators often include subtle dynamics that may not appear urgent but need to be dealt with before they fester or burst forth into a true crisis. For example, some KINDER questions probe the extent to which people feel safe speaking out about certain issues; their silence may not be noticed or even viewed as problematic. Another question probes subtle slights, insults or disrespectful comments that some members may view as “just the way we talk around here” but that others experience as bullying or harassing.

As part of the KINDER project, we are trying to develop our own understanding of civility and when it is or is not a reasonable expectation. When is incivility a problem, and what can and should be done about it? We focus on three aspects of this debate, where misunderstandings or conflicting underlying assumptions prevent campus leaders from making much progress.

Speaking at Cross-Purposes

The first aspect is that, as the above quotes make clear, people have very different conceptions of what civility means, so they are often speaking at cross-purposes. Some people assert that civility is an asymmetrical norm, unevenly applied, that lets some people on campuses spew hate speech while others have to remain “calm,” “orderly” and “unemotional.” Others contend, as we’ve noted, that civility “does not preclude passionate advocacy … nor does it mean ideas and arguments cannot be strongly expressed and severely criticized.”

Let’s sort out the issues here: Is the standard of civility asymmetrically applied? Every campus must maintain a learning environment that allows for the expression of a wide range of beliefs, values and experiences yet also remain sensitive to the fact that such expression might be offensive and hurtful to others. Different colleges and universities are trying to strike that balance in different ways, but it is hard to argue that they are not struggling with it. At a time when campuses are especially attuned to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, pressures are growing on college leaders to re-examine whether policies promoting free speech are, in fact, sanctioning hate speech. But the idea that only hate-mongers are protected by free speech, and their critics are not, fits no institutional situation we are aware of.

The other issue buried here is the question of form and content of expression. When a belief, value or experience is described in calm, emotionless language, it might appear “civil” even when the content of what is being expressed is ignorant or bigoted. Responses from the people who are feeling attacked, however, are by nature more likely to be impassioned or outraged—and hence appear “uncivil.” Here the critics of civility have more of a point: members of groups with privilege and power have the luxury of expressing certain views dispassionately because for them these are conventional, mainstream positions. How do you challenge these without sharp language? How do you ask people to keep calm when they are feeling personally attacked?

What we need is a greater effort to clarify the criteria by which policy language about free speech, hate speech and civility is defined. This public debate has become bogged down in slogans and false either-or dichotomies. Different institutions in different circumstances may interpret those words differently. When campus leaders open them up for engaged debate, it can shed more light on how different groups at an institution view and experience them.

Differing Visions of a College or University as a Community

The second issue we want to highlight is that the debate over civility is, at a deeper level, a debate over two different visions of the university as a community. Traditionally, a campus is a kind of cloistered space, a place of retreat and contemplation, a community governed by its own rules dedicated to promoting learning and the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, the institution has always been imperfectly so, but part of that community culture, for faculty members as well as students, has been the aspiration toward thoughtful, respectful engagement of ideas—including, or perhaps even especially, cases of vigorous disagreement. The expectation of civility is one of those norms.

The other vision is that the campus is a public space like any other, exhibiting all the same issues and challenges as in society in general: power imbalances, inequities of various sorts and even, as some argue, a certain ignorance or complacency about its own culpability in those wider injustices. This vision raises questions about who does and doesn’t get to have a voice in challenging some of those institutional contradictions. From that standpoint, the expectation of civility should be no more a norm on a campus than it is at a street corner, a bar or a political protest.

Differentiating Deliberative and Activist Speech

Third, we should also consider a useful distinction that Iris Marion Young makes between two kinds of speech: deliberative speech and activist speech. Deliberative speech is about dialogical engagement in working through a question, a problem or a negotiation: it is aimed toward the pursuit of common understanding and, where possible, consensus or compromise. It assumes a certain parity between the participants and assumes that a deliberative role is available to everyone within the community.

Activist speech is governed by a different set of aims and thus a different set of rules. It is about calling out and challenging injustices and privilege; it is not about engagement, but about speaking out, speaking to or speaking against. It draws attention to those people who are not, or who do not feel themselves to be, full participants in the deliberative conversation—and who are demanding to be included.

Civility would be one of the rules governing deliberative speech, but not necessarily activist speech. Here, again, the expectation of civility is viewed in the latter context as an asymmetrical constraint on voices challenging the dominant status quo.

Yet now we encounter a potential paradox. What is the purpose of activist speech, if not to create a situation in which more open, inclusive and deliberative engagement becomes possible—especially in educational contexts? Do challengers want to remain in an adversarial, attacking mode, or is this a necessary strategy in order to create the conditions for a different kind of engagement? What would a climate of perpetually activist, uncivil speech look like in a university? If activist speech is in the service of creating the conditions for a different kind of speech, then the question of civility returns: being uncivil is justified, in this view, because it is necessary to create a situation in which civility is possible.

Beyond the Dichotomies

Given all those considerations, college leaders should move beyond general either-or characterizations of civility and whether it is a good or bad thing in higher education. We need to ask different kinds of questions about what civility means and when it is a reasonable expectation for debates within this context.

Thus, deans, chairs and other leaders should be asking themselves and the people around them:

  • Do we have clear and shared understandings of what civility means?
  • Is civility a standard that is selectively or asymmetrically applied in a manner that disadvantages or silences certain voices?
  • How are the form of speech and the content of speech related to each other?
  • How do we balance the broadest possible tolerance for free speech, while also attending to the potentially harmful effects of accusatory or hate speech?

Such questions are crucial for addressing the central issue of what kind of public space a university campus must be, while also preserving the norms of engagement that govern how we deal with vigorous disagreement.

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