Civility Code or Loyalty Oath?

January 14, 2008

In the full knowledge of the commitment that I am freely willing to undertake as a student, I promise to respect each and every member of the college community without regard to race, creed, political ideology, lifestyle orientation, gender, or social status sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those I will come in contact with as a member of the college community. I promise to Bergen Community College that I will follow this code of responsibility.

1. Honesty, integrity, and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.
2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.
3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.
4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.
5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability.

The draft policy above -- prepared to promote civility and to respond to a series of racial incidents -- has led to an intense (and civil) debate at Bergen Community College, in New Jersey. Many professors are aghast at the draft, comparing it to a loyalty oath, and saying that it would make it a punishable offense for a conservative student not to "embrace and celebrate" the ideas of Michael Moore or for a liberal student not to do the same with Ann Coulter. Like loyalty oaths, one idea was to have students sign it (and some feared professors would have to sign too).

Days after college officials were quoted in local papers saying that students who didn't sign wouldn't be allowed to enroll, and professors were vowing that the policy would never take effect, the president has said that the policy is only a draft and no students will be kicked out for refusing to sign or for their political views.

The president's most recent statements have reassured faculty members, but not ended the debate over what to do (if anything) about incidents of incivility.

Photo: Bergen Community College

Some who received this postcard sent in remarks about the lack of white men.

 

Susan Baechtel, a spokeswoman for the college, said that a series of incidents in the fall showed the need for the policy:

  • Someone programmed a library printer to print a racial slur she would not utter except to call it "the n-word, which is absolutely forbidden here," on 2,000 pages of paper.
  • When the college mailed students a reminder postcard about spring registration, one side of the card featured a group photo of some students at the college. Several postcards were mailed back to the college with slurs such as "why are my tax dollars going to educate Islamic terrorists?" and "where are the white males?" The group in the photo included several Muslim female students with head scarves. No white males were in the photo. Although the college's student body is 53 percent white, Baechtel said that the white males she had recruited for the photo shoot (she wanted a diverse group) had to leave for class and when she tried to recruit white males who were walking by "they refused to get into the picture."
  • The college held a public forum featuring U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and officials learned that some neo-Nazis planned to attend. Security officials frisked some people arriving whose clothing looked bulky and found several people trying to get Nazi brochures and hate material into the college auditorium by hiding the material in their underwear. The college made these individuals check the material for return later so it could not be distributed during the senator's appearance.

The neo-Nazis were not students, and no one has been identified as responsible for the library incident or the comments written on the postcards.

"What we're trying to facilitate [with the policy is] a positive learning environment," Baechtel said. "When people are viciously attacked, it doesn't promote a level learning playing field. We have to come out and promote this level playing field for learning."

Baechtel added that the policy was drafted with knowledge of the murders at Virginia Tech. "Virginia Tech is starting to frame our thoughts on this," she said.

But when the proposed policy was sent out by the administration last week, leaders of the faculty union -- an affiliate of the National Education Association -- immediately objected. George Cronk, a union leader who is chair of the college's philosophy and religion department, said he found the policy "objectionable in almost every way," adding that "any critically thinking person couldn't commit herself or himself to some of the things this document asks for."

Specifically, he said that people must be entitled to determine that there are views or ideas that they don't wish to embrace or respect.

"Some intellectual perspectives are evil and others are wrong and many of them must be vigorously opposed -- ideas like fascism and racism and anti-Semitism and all kinds of wacky and bad ideas," Cronk said. Further, some conservative or liberal views, while not necessarily the same as racism, may be ideas that some students may legitimately not wish to embrace, he said. And the policy would make all kinds of students fearful of being expelled if they said what they believed, he said.

"The words 'inclusiveness and diversity' are used in academia these days virtually as religious incantations,'" Cronk said. "These terms have a coercive effect. You can't really say what you mean. You have to be very careful with your language, and it seems like a form of thought control."

G. Jeremiah Ryan, president at Bergen, stressed in an interview that he understood the faculty concerns and that the draft policy was subject to revision after he hears in more detail from professors. Ryan said he would never support a policy that had the effect of limiting the views students or professors could express. And he said that as a public institution, Bergen couldn't have a speech code without facing court challenges.

He said, however, that he asked some professors to draft the policy when they told him of an "uptick in behavior" that lacked civility. "If I made a mistake," Ryan said, it was that he turned to "true believers" to draft the policy.

Ryan said he still believes some code is needed. Like many colleges, Bergen's existing student regulations cover topics such as plagiarism and paying tuition, but not civility. He said it is important to teach students that there are standards about how people should interact at the college, and that that should be possible while also remembering "that one person's civility issue is another person's free speech issue."

In hindsight, he said, the idea of requiring students to sign a civility code "is probably too far on one end of the continuum," and not something he would favor.

The debate at Bergen now is healthy, he said, and shows that much of the way to promote civility on campus is through actions, not policies. "We're going to be talking about it more in orientation, encouraging faculty members to use incidents as teachable moments," he said.

Faculty leaders praised Ryan for his latest statements, although some said he was backtracking from earlier statements about the draft.

Professors also said that they see civility problems, but question whether a code will do much about that. Cronk said students at the college reflect societal norms and the declining civility everywhere.

He also said he objected to the statement that the policy reflected the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

"What happened at Virginia Tech is something like a natural disaster, even though it was done by a human being," Cronk said. "It was not the kind of thing that pledges of civility would have done anything to have stopped. That person might have signed all the pledges of responsibility in the world. It's an absurd and naive idea to think that printing things in catalogs, or requiring students or faculty to sign this, we'd then be safe."

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