As every American knows, COVID-19 is still filling hospitals, inflation is at a 40-year high, employers are rethinking plans for in-person learning and work, and political polarization seems intractable. Tempers are short; civility is less and less in evidence. Every day brings new stories of passengers brawling on planes, patients harassing hospital staff, school board meetings descending into chaos and customers yelling at store and restaurant workers—all part of “the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style” described in a recent New York Times article.
Colleges and universities are by no means immune from this “fraying of the public temper.” On many campuses, leaders feel “they have become the punching bag for unhappy constituents,” in the words of columnist Kevin R. McClure. Staff members are also under strain, often bearing the brunt of parent and student frustration. Campus health professionals, for example, “have endured disrespect, misbehavior, and other forms of backlash as they perform their job responsibilities, administer vaccines, or enforce campus prevention strategies and policies,” according to the American College Health Association. Faculty, exhausted and demoralized, snipe at one another or at administrators in committees, meetings and email exchanges.
Uncivil behavior also manifests in ways more directly antithetical to the liberal arts ideals of intellectual freedom. On some campuses, for example, individuals on the left and the right may be subjected to ostracization, shaming or social media mobbing if they express unpopular ideas on hot-button social justice issues. Uncivil behavior sometimes takes the form of ad hominem attacks on other members of the community over issues ranging from pandemic protocols to hiring decisions.
The drivers of these various forms of incivility differ, but each contributes to the erosion of institutional culture. Members of campus communities need to understand the different sources of incivility and take steps to ensure that it does not become normalized.
Colleges and universities pride themselves on fostering a strong sense of community, based on shared values and a belief that higher education helps students to achieve their full potential and society to prosper and grow. That sense of mission-driven community supports a culture of joint problem solving and collaboration. Anything that erodes that culture poses a significant risk.
Respectful consideration of different viewpoints should be a hallmark of academic culture. For people who feel powerless, however, incivility may seem the only weapon available. To them, instead of acting as a “social lubricant,” civility may function as a vehicle for blocking change and “preventing social mobility.” On issues of social justice in particular, passion and moral outrage may help pave the way for progress. Proponents of civility, who often occupy positions of authority, need to keep that in mind, encourage free and unfettered speech, actively listen, and accept the value of speaking truth to power.
Nonetheless, colleges and universities should encourage reasoned exchanges as the norm. Disagreements may become emotional, even passionate, but they should also rest on a shared understanding that anger is not an argument. Being heard does not necessarily mean the listener agrees. And within a community pursuing a shared mission, incivility often hardens instead of bridging differences.
Fortunately, civil discourse remains the norm in classrooms, although some students self-censor on sensitive issues for fear of alienating their peers. Outside the classroom, however, incivility is escalating. Left unaddressed, it can foster an “increasingly hostile and toxic work environment,” as University of British Columbia’s Lynn Bosetti and LaTrobe University’s Troy Heffernan have noted, particularly since people who experience incivility are more likely to be uncivil themselves.
Colleges and universities should take a number of steps in response.
First, campus leaders should insist that complaints about university services or rules be proportionate, on point (not ad hominem) and directed to the appropriate person or persons. When parents become verbally abusive to a staff member and are referred to a more senior administrator, exchanges often become more civil, and staff are both protected from and empowered to circumvent those who are disrespectful.
Second, when dealing with incivility between employees, campus leaders can model and reward constructive behaviors and use coaching and performance reviews to address disruptive conduct. Administrators can also try, within the limits of pandemic safety, to encourage face-to-face interaction. It is easier to ignore the norms of civil behavior when exchanges are online. Further, campus leaders can provide employees with training on active listening, managing conflict and de-escalating charged situations.
Third, when meetings or public gatherings are expected to become contentious, it may be useful to establish ground rules and have a moderator set an appropriate tone. Those in positions of authority should be prepared to summarize substantive concerns and indicate clearly what they are or are not willing or able to do. Training campus leaders in de-escalation techniques may also prove helpful.
Finally, top administrators should remember that faculty, and to a lesser extent, students, are trained to construct, critique and defend arguments. While in some cases, distinguishing between vigorous debate and incivility can be difficult, they should encourage all members of the community to consider how their actions and words affect others. Cornell University’s Interactive Theatre Ensemble provides a helpful approach. The ensemble creates scripted scenes—developed with members of the units they are presenting—around highly charged workplace issues, and facilitators lead follow-up discussions illuminating “the dynamics of human interaction around the issues.” Although the ensemble’s primary focus is on diversity and inclusion, workshops also promote a healthier and more civil campus climate. Hamilton College’s Levitt Center Community Conversations program provides another model. The program trains students in basic facilitation skills and uses mock dialogues to offer practice “managing challenging group or participant dynamics and difficult conversations.”
It may be hard to put the incivility genie back in the bottle. But it can be done, if administrators, faculty members, students and others commit to a culture characterized by substantive exchanges that include explicit articulation of areas of agreement and disagreement—and, when appropriate, next steps.