Campuses of Ids

College officials consider how to promote civility to students reared on "South Park," not Miss Manners.
March 14, 2006

More than 2,000 new students at Towson University had gathered for the convocation that was to be a focal point of orientation week. Videos showed campus scenes. The marching band was going to help teach the Maryland institution's fight song. The university president, several Towson sports stars, and the student government president were to speak to the freshmen in a relatively short (45 minute) program.

But before the halfway point, students started to leave -- not just a few, but hundreds. And they continued to leave, even as the master of ceremonies, a local sportscaster, implored them to stay. University staff members wondered at the time -- and still -- "how could students be so rude," said Debra Moriarty, vice president for student affairs, in a discussion Monday at the annual meeting of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

A packed audience at the meeting traded stories that demonstrated that the Towson experience is far from unique. And it's not just the new students who are rude. Several of those in the audience said that they have a similar problem at graduation ceremonies. Once students get their diplomas, they get up and leave, and so do their parents, leaving those at the end of the alphabet with plenty of room to stretch.

The student affairs leaders who gathered to discuss the issue said that they face increasing pressure from their bosses in the administration and from faculty members to do something about rude or uncivil students. While some of the issues relate to questions of diversity and tolerance, the focus of the discussion was on encouraging fairly basic levels of politeness. Administrators talked about students who begin discussions with expletives, who mock students with whom they disagree, and who think nothing of picking up a cell phone and making a call in class.

Moriarty said that it was important for colleges to "articulate the values of the institution" to students and that -- failing to do so -- colleges can hardly be surprised when students don't share those values. But she acknowledged that this was easier said than done, especially when not everyone agrees on what civility is.

Kandy Mink Salas, dean of students at California State University at Fullerton, said that cell phones are a good example. Five years ago, she scoffed at students who felt the need to be on the phone as they crossed campus. These days, she said, she does it, too.

A big part of her message for faculty members, Salas said, is that they can ask students to change behavior that is rude -- and that they shouldn't feel that their role is strictly about grades and papers. "It's not just me who can ask a student to turn down a boombox," she said.

Salas said that it was important "not to be relativistic" and to assume that all behaviors were equally valid. At the same time, she added, it was important for faculty members to step back and ask themselves why certain behaviors bothered them, and whether there were ways that they could recognize legitimate student needs. This is especially the case, Salas said, when there are clashes of cultures, such as between a more traditional faculty and a diversifying student body.

For example, Salas said that professors complain to her that students eat full meals in class, making noise and distracting others. That makes sense, Salas said, but what about the growing population at many colleges of older students who rush to campus from full-time jobs and literally don't have time to eat, but need a boost to get through class? She suggested that a professor might ask students on the first day of a course to restrict eating to energy bars.

In the case of cell phone use in class, she said there's not much of a justification for it -- and she said she encouraged faculty members to bar cell phone use on the first day and to make the rule clear to everyone. On some "rudeness" issues, however, she said it was important to step back and be sure there was a problem. Are students who are seen as being "too loud on the quad" really too loud or just different from students of previous generations?

One audience member chimed in that colleges say they want a diverse student body, but that when diverse students enroll, "we want them to act like little white guys from 1952."

Some of the student affairs officials talked about circumstances in which they are being asked to mediate conflicts involving students and professors. Sara A. Boatman, vice president for student life and campus community at Nebraska Wesleyan University, described an incident there in which a student in a public speaking class gave a talk in favor of allowing gay marriage. Her fellow students snickered and insulted her, and then followed her across campus, piling more insults on. The professor -- in her first year at the university -- asked the class to be more polite, but didn't know what to do, especially since the student who was being attacked said she "didn't want to make a big deal of it" for fear of making the students angrier.

Audience members urged an assertive response, and said that the behavior in this case wasn't just rude, but harassing, too. Several said that the professor shouldn't have been afraid to speak to rude students about their behavior and to explain why it was inappropriate, regardless of their views on gay marriage.

One official seemed to capture the mood of the crowd when he said that there was an important middle ground between seeking judicial action and ignoring the incident. "We're allowed to act without charging students with anything," he said.

Indeed a general theme of the session was that colleges and those who work in academe need to have the guts to state their expectations. Salas, the Fullerton dean, acknowledged that many professors have a "real fear" that doing so will make them unpopular with students, but she said that rules need not result in a faculty member getting trashed in evaluations.

"Most 18 year olds appreciate structure," Salas said. Faculty members need to avoid talking down to students, and should mix in a little humor while explaining rules, but as long as rules and expectations are spelled out clearly, and enforced consistently, students won't object. What students will rebel against, she said, is any sense that rules are arbitrary or that rules were in place without being explained.

Salas also said that today's generation of students wants to be praised -- with grades or commendations of some sort. Students who think they are more likely to get an A by following the rules will follow the rules, she said. "You can call it student development or student manipulation," she quipped.

Botman, of Nebraska Wesleyan, said that students aren't the only people on campus sensitive to culture. Professors are more likely to become involved on civility issues if their peers are, she said. Senior professors telling junior professors that they can take a stand on conduct will be more effective than student affairs people saying the same thing. And when professors act in concert, you have an "institutional ethos" that truly can promote civility.

Several in the audience said that it was important to extend that ethos to the admissions office. One person described a program in which the student affairs division prepares a list for the admissions office each year of students who have been expelled or suspended. If professors and student affairs officials are wondering "why did we admit that student?" it's important to look for patterns, she said.

In terms of making expectations clear to students, organizers of the panel pointed to several statements on civility that colleges issue -- not as rules necessarily, but as a philosophy about how students should treat one another. These statements tend to stress positive actions -- empathy, respect, civility -- rather than just listing behaviors to avoid (although some statements include some of them too) and these policies aren't intended to punish as much as to provide goals. Some of the statements cited include those of Coe and Smith Colleges, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of South Carolina.

Several at the session said that student incivility isn't going to disappear overnight and that those working to promote a more polite campus need a long-term view. After one audience member spoke of her frustrations at how students treated her, Salas replied: "You have to be strong and have faith. They won't get it today or tomorrow, but some day."


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