British author Mary Wortley Montagu wrote that “civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
I think this is true. It takes so little to engage in civil discourse, even when we disagree, and we are more likely to understand opposing views when they are presented civilly.
The word “civility” can be loaded in academe. The American Association of University Professors, in its statement on civility, indicates that some believe calls for civility can be equated with the erosion of academic freedom.
There are other views. Our own Faculty Senate debated – and ultimately withdrew from consideration – a proposed statement on civil conduct in shared governance that called for “efforts to address problems and concerns on campus in a civil and professional manner.”
The Bloomington Faculty Council at Indiana University says, in its Statement on Civility, that the university’s values include “fostering a climate of civility and mutual respect.”
“Because the university is so complex and diverse, we will not always agree with one another,” the statement says. “Nevertheless, we expect everyone to speak and act with respect for one another.”
Inside Higher Education columnist Judith Shapiro offers this perspective: “Some critics of the civility standard propose that it can only be useful if operationalized and thus able to pass muster in terms of specificity. This, however, requires us to face the fact that formal codes and procedures are no substitute for shared norms about appropriate, responsible, civilized behavior.”
Civility on campus
In the examples above, civility is being discussed in different contexts – shared governance, supporting campus diversity and inclusion, and engaging in debate on divisive public issues.
Regardless of the context, I think civility in an academic setting is about professionalism and respect. I believe strongly in both academic freedom and civil discourse, and I hope we embrace them both at SIU. Lack of civility damages us all. Embracing civility costs us nothing and buys us everything.