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Are today’s college professors acting less civilly towards colleagues and the administration?

Civil Discourse is an Important value in the Academy

This is the third of a three-part series on the ethics of academics. My blog on February 4 dealt with politically correct speech on college campuses. On February 9, I examined Harvard University's ban on sexual relationships between professors and undergraduates. Today I look at civility on campus.

I feel fortunate to be teaching at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where a culture of ethics and civility permeates activities on campus and relationships with colleagues. The tone is set at the top and, for me, it is the ethical tone that guides campus behavior. Today we face the challenge of sexual assault on female students that has been a problem on other college campuses around the U.S. Hopefully, this problem will be handled with a sense of urgency and standards set for student behavior and interactions with others built on ethics, civility, and respect.

I recently read the 2015 Survey of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) that was conducted by Inside Higher Ed that concerns me a great deal having conducted myself in accordance with these values stated above. According to the survey,

  • Almost three-quarters of CAOs (71 percent) are very or somewhat concerned about declining civility among higher education faculty.
  • CAOs indicate that professors are likelier to treat students civilly than they are to treat their faculty peers or administrators that way.
  • More than 8 in 10 provosts (83 percent) agree or strongly agree that civility should be a criteria for evaluating performance.

In his bestselling book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a lot to say on the topic of assholes in the workplace. He cites work by Teresa Amabile, who did a series of controlled experiments using fictitious book reviews. While the reviews themselves essentially made the same observations about the books, the tone in which the reviewers expressed their observations was tweaked to be either nice or nasty.

I found Sutton’s premise to apply to academic institutions as well. I publish a lot of research papers and have often encountered reviewers who feel the need to put my work down or belittle my thesis. Thankfully, I managed to put those nasty comments aside and revise my papers so that the research was published in many peer reviewed journals.

I also encountered nastiness during my Ph.D. thesis-writing days. Advisors would undress me before their peers perhaps to seem relevant and to convince colleagues they were doing their job. I always accepted the overly-critical comments that bordered on abuse as part of the academic culture.

During my early days as an assistant professor I recall making presentations on my research where a professor from my campus, or others from other campuses attending the session, felt the need to be critical of my work. I never quite got it especially since the motivation for those critical comments seemed to be simply to be critical and sometimes criticized points I did not make. Professors are quite adept at promoting their own points of view regardless if they are on point.

Now that I am a seasoned professor I have the luxury of looking back on my 30+ years of academic experience and observe that offering critique and being critical are two different things, the latter which is generally unproductive. As in life, professors need to learn that the way we say something is just as important, perhaps even more important, than what we say.

Debate and disagreement are critical constructs in the role of universities in society and educating tomorrow’s leaders. We must remember that discourse should be conducted in a civil manner with respect for our colleagues and the administration. Reasonable people disagree, but we can disagree without sacrificing respect.  The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish, but we are stronger if we can argue and debate without degrading others. 

I recall reading a document prepared by the leadership at Penn State University that addresses civility in campus debate.  According to Penn State’s academic leaders, respect is a core value at the institution. The administration asks faculty to consciously choose civility and to support those whose words and actions serve to promote respectful disagreement and thereby strengthen their community.

Now, Penn State has been through a lot since the sexual abuse charges against Jerry Sandusky first surfaced and the role of legendary football coach Joe Paterno was questioned. I have blogged about this issue before and the damage it did to an otherwise model institution – at least with respect to its football program. Perhaps the civility document is a result of heated campus debates on this issue.

I have argued before that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on the Internet and the questionable taste of much of the chatter on social media. As professors we should not follow their lead, not if we are to live up to our responsibilities as academics and serve our students as role models.

In a study titled, “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards,” University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication found a significant correlation between anonymity and civility. Comparing the tone of thousands of online comments posted by anonymous and non-anonymous users following online newspaper stories, Santana found that 53.3 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful; only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil.

We live in a time where negative comments abound. Everyone is critical of everyone else. We see it all the time on the major cable news shows. It has infected our society. Academics should be above the fray and live up to our responsibilities to promote intellectual curiosity, free speech, and debate of the issues facing us in academe and in the country in a way that is respectful. After all, we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 11, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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