The Problem With Civility

As Berkeley chancellor joins those calling for more civility in academe, faculty critics see an attack on academic freedom.

September 9, 2014
U. of California at Berkeley
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks

Will 2014 be the year of civility in faculty conduct? It seems to be shaping up that way, with administrators and even courts recently weighing in on the concept – to the dismay of many faculty members who see expectations of civility as incompatible with academic freedom. It's not that critics want everyone to be rude, but they say that civility can be used as grounds to squelch unpopular ideas that deserve a home in academe.

Most recently, this week, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks of the University of California at Berkeley sent an email to faculty and students asking them to honor the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement on campus with a focus on civility.

“As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order to free speech to thrive,” Dirks wrote. “Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.”

Dirks continued: “In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.”

Bloggers and online commenters immediately criticized the message, with some on Twitter calling it “Orwellian” and “wrongheaded.” Popehat, a legal blog, offered a line-by-line critique of the chancellor’s email, with a particular focus on the “single coin” metaphor: “Civility is not weighed equally with free speech. It is not a prerequisite of free speech. It is a value, an idea, to be tested in the marketplace of ideas with other vales. Free speech is often uncivil.”

On another blog, Michael Meranze, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles who earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley, accused Dirks of various “misapprehensions” about the nature of free speech and Berkeley’s historic role in the movement.

“At Berkeley, Chancellor Dirks, in his efforts to set the limits of civility, appears not to see the ways that he repeats the 1960s demonization of the [movement] (hardly praised in California in the early 1960s) as themselves barbarians at the gates of proper university discourse and debate,” Meranze wrote on Remaking the University.  “[T]he repetitive invocation of ‘civil’ and ‘civility’ to set limits to acceptable speech bespeaks a broader and deeper challenge to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses."

Meranze and others also drew parallels to the recent decision by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to withdraw a job offer to Steven Salaita, the controversial American studies scholar who posted remarks about Israel on Twitter that many said were inflammatory. Illinois hasn’t provided much detail about why it pulled Salaita’s offer, but Chancellor Phyllis Wise said last month that the university doesn’t tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Salaita became a kind of poster child for free speech this summer, even for many faculty members who found his social media utterances distasteful. So it is perhaps unsurprising that his name has emerged again and again in reference to Dirks’s email, as in Meranze’s post: “Civility in this context enables managerial intrusion into the academic review process and the dismissal of the measured evaluation of both faculty and academic administrators closest to the issue. …Secrecy and non-academic issues trumped the established protocols for making appointments. All in the name of civility.”

A Berkeley spokesman said Dirks was out of the country Monday and unavailable for comment. But Nils Gilman, associate chancellor and Dirks’s chief of staff, said the email had been “misconstrued” by critics, largely outside of the immediate campus context for which it was intended.

“This was a request, not a rule or a requirement,” Gilman said of Dirks’s call for civility, which was one of a series of messages planned for this fall’s celebration of free speech. “It’s a norm he would like people to adopt, but you can’t force people to adopt norms.”

Gilman said he thought public reaction to the chancellor’s request was influenced by the Salaita case. But he said Dirks’s message was in no way a judgment of Illinois’s actions. At the same time, Gilman added, it’s important that colleges and universities not shy away from discussions about “civility” due to fears about how policies or ideas have been applied elsewhere.

“There’s no reason to consider that word as permanently tainted,” he said, calling faculty calls for administrators to refrain from any discussion of civility “ironic” attempts at enforcing their own speech codes.

But the email still has academic freedom advocacy groups concerned.

Anity Levy, associate secretary at the American Association of University Professors, said the chancellor’s position was “astonishing.”

She continued: “That the university which gave rise to the free speech movement should celebrate it by embracing the notion of civility is patently absurd.”

Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, expressed similar sentiments. “Instead of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement with a ringing endorsement of the right to speak one's mind, Dirks offered Berkeley a tepid, compromised vision of free speech that would, in practice, render it a hollow right,” he said via email. “If Dirks doesn't support freedom of expression when speech isn't ‘civil,’ he doesn't support freedom of expression.”

While the matter at Berkeley has attracted much attention, in part to due to Berkeley’s historic role in the free speech movement, Dirks isn’t the only president to weigh in on civility in the last week. Eric J. Barron, the new president of Pennsylvania State University, along with his President’s Council, recently published a statement asking “friends” of the university to “consciously choose civility.”

“Some may argue that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on blogs or by acrimonious national politics,” the statement says. “We cannot afford to follow their lead, not if we are to serve our students as role models, not if we expect to continue to attract the outstanding volunteers who serve our university in so many ways, and not if we wish to have Penn Staters take our university to new levels of excellence.” (Unlike Dirks, no one has accused Barron of making veiled references to Salaita; the Penn State message widely has been viewed as an attempt to defuse tensions lingering from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.)

Losing a Job Over Civility

While both presidential messages are framed as requests, some colleges and universities have more formalized expectations of civility – the violation of which can lead to dismissal. That was the case for Christopher Keating, who sued the University of South Dakota for violating his First Amendment rights by terminating his tenure-track faculty position in physics after he called another professor a “back-stabbing sneak” in an email. The university said he had violated its civility expectation for faculty members, but a district court originally found the policy too vague and sided with Keating. Then, this summer, an appeals court overturned that ruling and sided with the university, saying that Keating “reasonably should have recognized that his email ran afoul of the [policy’s] requirements that faculty discharge their duties ‘constructively,’ treat one another ‘with respect’ and act ‘in ways that will preserve and strengthen the willingness to cooperate.’ ”

Keating declined to comment on the most recent ruling, saying he had “moved on.” A university spokesman did not return a request for comment.

The AAUP opposes civility clauses for their potential to chill academic freedom and free speech. Levy said the AAUP hadn’t been involved in Keating’s case, but found the ruling concerning. But she said it was too early to tell whether it, combined with other recent administrative endorsements of civility, constituted a worrisome trend.

Jason Walta, a lawyer for the National Education Association who has written about the Keating case and been critical of South Dakota’s actions, said he saw a difference between general calls for civility and attempts to enforce it.

“It's one thing to urge students and faculty alike to be civil and treat other viewpoints with respect, which is all I read Dirks to be doing,” he said.

Walta continued via email: “But it's quite another thing altogether for a university -- particularly a public one like [Illinois or the University of Kansas, which has drafted a social media policy for faculty] to say that it will mete out punishment or make faculty personnel decisions based on the ‘tone’ or ‘lack of civility’ in speech on matters of public importance. The latter practice is particularly pernicious because it can be very easy sometimes to hide substantive disagreements about important issues behind objections about civility.”

Panos Papadopoulos, Chancellor's Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley and chair of its Academic Senate, said via email that faculty members there had had a variety of reactions to Dirks's message, from concern that it was a "blueprint" for limiting free speech to no concern at all. Given the "sensitivity" of the topic, he said he was sure it would "catalyze further conversation on campus, especially as we are celebrating this fall the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement."


Back to Top