Can Civility and Academic Freedom Coexist?

Ashley Thorne

George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation” begin, “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” The next 109 Rules spell out what respect meant to Washington. For him these were more than standards of politeness; they were habits of selflessness and deference to others. 

Americans have long cherished the ideal of civility—but not all Americans, and higher education today oddly finds the notion of civility especially perplexing. Many colleges and universities say in their official pronouncements that they hope their campuses will be places where civility can flourish. Some, including Northern Arizona University, Florida State University, Union College, and California State University, have made commitment to civility part of their mission statements and core values. But some faculty members, and groups such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), say that limiting speech to what is “civil” restricts both academic freedom and freedom of speech. In 2011 FIRE urged Harvard University to retract an optional “civility” pledge it had asked freshmen to sign. FIRE called the pledge an “imposition upon the Class of 2015's freedoms of expression and conscience.”

Both the colleges and the critics often reduce civility to a matter of speech. George Washington’s idea was not so cramped. Civility is also a matter of attitude, of how we regard one another if we meet as strangers and as we become more acquainted, and whether we stand aloof from our fellows or approach one another with hospitality. Civility in this sense is a matter of character and an implicit decision as to whether to foster a community of mutual respect or to retreat into private self-regard. No college or university, of course, could dictate that its faculty members or students embrace civility in this deeper sense. The bureaucratic reflex is to limit civility to something external such as speech that can be subject to rules. But it is important to remember the larger ideal.

Keeping that ideal in mind might help disentangle the confusion that has arisen on campus between those who want to uphold limits on who says what and those who want freedom of speech to reign supreme. The National Association of Scholars has often expressed its own objections to speech codes while at the same time extolling “civil debate.”  Can NAS have it both ways? For that matter, can universities? 

Two incidents this month illustrate the tug-of-war between openness and mutual respect.

Protesting Petraeus

On September 9, a group of students from the City University of New York (CUNY) hounded former Commanding General and CIA Director David Petraeus, as he was leaving after teaching his first class at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College. The students called Petraeus a “piece of s***” and a “war criminal,” and chanted that they would repeat this after “every class.”

The student leading the group, Erick Moreno, told the Guardian, “This will be a recurring thing. Whatever it will take to push him off our campus we will do. We know he teaches every Monday.”

About ten student groups as well as several CUNY faculty members endorsed the protests, according to a flyer distributed by the organizers. One adjunct faculty member in Hunter College’s history department who helped set up the demonstration, Sandor John, told the Guardian, "We don't want someone like [Petraeus] on campus."

In response, the dean of the Honors College, Ann Kirschner, wrote in an official statement:

Harassment and abusive behavior toward a faculty member are antithetical to the university's mission of free and open dialogue. Although this may be obvious, this kind of behavior strikes more deeply at the heart of our cherished American right to express our beliefs without threats or fear of retribution.

Dean Kirschner emphasized the importance of “reasoned debate” and concluded:

We may disagree, but we must always do so in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. While the college supports the articulation of all points of view on critical issues, it is essential that dialogue within the academic setting always be conducted civilly.

Civility here is framed as the basis for freedom of speech and incivility as a threat to it.

Rather than creating a place for discussion, the attacks on Dr. Petraeus made open debate impossible. Students were exercising freedom of speech, but in such a way as to stifle academic freedom. As NAS president Peter Wood wrote in a letter to CUNY interim chancellor William Kelly, “The First Amendment rights of protestors do not extend to harassing a faculty member. […] If allowed to continue, this harassment will hinder Petraeus’s ability to teach and obstruct the opportunity of his students to learn. Freedom to learn, Lernfreiheit, is no less important to academic freedom as the faculty member’s right to express his scholarly judgments free from menace and coercion.”

Four days after the incident, CUNY's Executive Committee of the University Faculty Senate released a statement in support of Dr. Petraeus and academic freedom.  A week afterward, Chancellor Kelly made his own statement, in which he said, “We defend free speech and we reject the disruption of the free exchange of ideas. Accordingly, CUNY will continue to ensure that Dr. Petraeus is able to teach without harassment or obstruction.”

Policy at University of Oregon

On September 6, the administration of the University of Oregon proposed revisions to its academic freedom policy, so that it would include two mentions of civility as a core principle. This was the latest salvo in a dispute between the UO administration and the Faculty Senate. The UO faculty unionized last year, and in April the Faculty Senate approved a “Policy on Academic Freedom and Free Speech” nearly identical to the one put forward by the union, United Academics. The Faculty Senate text elaborated “the freedom to engage in internal criticism” and “the protections of freedom of speech with regard to any matter, so long as it is clear that they are not acting or speaking on behalf of the University.”

The two mentions of civility in the administration’s version fell under Faculty Policies. One called on faculty members to: “Treat students, staff, colleagues, and the public fairly and civilly in discharging his or her duties and in accordance with this Agreement.”

The other charged faculty members to:

Participate, as appropriate, in the system of shared academic governance, especially at the department or unit level, and seek to contribute to the civil and effective academic functioning of the bargaining unit faculty member's academic unit (program, department, school or college) and the university.

In both cases the word “civil” seemed not to be directed to speech per se but to evoke a wider sense of social responsibility.  But the revisions excised a paragraph in the Faculty Senate’s draft about faculty members’ rights to freedom of speech.  Implicitly, the language of civility was deployed as a counter to the language of free speech.   

The difference, once again, inflamed a broader debate that goes beyond the precincts of Eugene. FIRE weighed in, and in an article in Inside Higher Ed about the controversy Colleen Flaherty wrote:

Civility clauses have long been of concern to advocates for professors. While it's hard to find people who are anti-civility, many academics note that requiring civility can become a tool for punishing those professors who speak out against their bosses or who push unpopular positions.

A University of Oregon economics professor, Bill Harbaugh, wrote on his blog UO Matters about the language on civility and fairness: “Sounds great, but who gets to define these words?” He told Inside Higher Ed that he objected to administrators being the ones to decide what qualifies as “civil.”

Michael Mauer, an AAUP senior labor advisor, also objected to the new language, according to IHE:

And while there’s nothing wrong with an “aspirational” mention of civility, he said, including it as a “faculty responsibility” opens the door to potential disciplinary action for words that should be accepted within the "scope of vigorous debate."

University of Oregon president Michael Gottfredson, who was guiding the policy revisions, wrote in an email that he believed academic freedom and freedom of speech were important enough to merit two separate documents, and that he would soon begin working with the Faculty Senate to develop the freedom of speech policy. His executive assistant David Hubin told IHE that “Any determination of what’s civil would likely include faculty input.” He said, “It is the responsibility of speakers, listeners and all members of our community to respect others and to promote a culture of mutual inquiry throughout the university community.”

This is a story without a happy ending for civility.  President Gottfredson conceded the principle and Inside Higher Ed reports that the language about civility was removed from the final contract.

The AAUP, Courtesy, and Speech Codes

The definitive statement on academic freedom is the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. It establishes courtesy as the proper tone for the competent inquiry required in order for academic freedom to flourish:

The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.

A “scholar’s spirit” is thus marked by honorableness in a scholar’s approach to his work.

More recently, the AAUP published in the early ‘90s a statement, “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes,” which treats universities’ concern for civility as a worthy goal but one that can lead to rules curtailing freedom of speech. “Civility is always fragile and can easily be destroyed,” it notes. To protect civility and often to respond to campus incidents that point to discrimination, many colleges and universities have instituted policies forbidding various forms of expression that they deem offensive, as FIRE has documented in detail for over a decade.

Florida Atlantic University, for example, recently implemented a “Free Speech and Campus Civility” code, which says, “What we do insist on, however, is that everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others.” Another is Johns Hopkins University, which has in place a set of “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All,” one of which is that “Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” FIRE has contended that keeping students comfortable and protecting them from offense is not worth sacrificing First Amendment rights.

One Without the Other Won’t Work

September 17 was Constitution Day. It was a day to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy in America, including the freedom to speak and express opinions, even unpopular or controversial ones.

Freedom of speech on campus is vital to the open exchange of ideas which universities exist to foster. On campus, we need both freedom of speech and academic freedom. Academic freedom, however, is narrower than freedom of speech. It entails not only a privilege to speak but also a responsibility in the manner of speaking. There must be “patient and sincere inquiry” and “dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.”

By that test, the mobbing of David Petraeus was not an act of academic freedom. Rather, because it was conducted in a spirit of malice and ad hominem attack rather than earnest debate, it created an environment hostile to academic freedom.

Finding the way to uphold both civility and freedom of thought and speech should not be framed as seeking a balance between opposing principles. The debate often sounds like that but only because the debate itself is confused. Taken to irrational extremes, civility and freedom can be maneuvered to appear as antagonists. Civility calls for restraint. Free speech supposes an absence of restraints. The famous instances—the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois is the classic case—where decency and free expression headed in opposite directions deserve attention. But Skokie was not a case of academic freedom or a faculty member seeking the “the liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions…by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit.” 

If we uphold that old AAUP conception of things, civility and freedom are boon companions, not rivals. But worries over the misuse of “civility” also need to be taken seriously. When the AAUP expresses such worries it is presumably thinking about such eventualities as the beleaguered Marxist taken to task for his “uncivil” opinions about class struggle, or some Ward Churchill epigone sneering at “little Eichmanns” justly incinerated in the World Trade Center. When the NAS expresses worries about “civility” we are more often thinking about efforts to shut down criticism of racial preferences or dissent on other campus orthodoxies. Either way, civility can be turned into an illiberal doctrine that limits liberty and suppresses unpopular ideas.  

Can we have civility that doesn’t tip into censorship? It is a hard question. Administrators are fallible and bureaucracies are typically obtuse. Manners cannot be legislated. At some point people either embrace the worthiness of an ideal or they don’t. But that isn’t a rationalization for doing nothing. Colleges and universities do have a responsibility to enunciate ideals and model good character. Ultimately that is what will promote civility in the best sense.  And civility is our best bulwark against abuses such as verbal harassment and intimidation.  We can’t outlaw coldness and misanthropy, but we can make clear that behavior on that end of the spectrum is no basis for intellectual community. That would go a long way to helping the CUNY deal with those intent on driving Petraeus off campus. It would also help colleges and universities respond with the right combination of temperance and decisiveness when protesters mob, shout down, or even “clap down” campus speakers.

Civility rightly understood is not a principle of avoiding confrontation. George Washington was, after all, a man of war. A civil campus isn’t one in which everyone agrees for the sake of agreeability. It is rather a campus in which debate is conducted with basic respect for one’s opponents. Don’t interrupt. Listen. Don’t call people names. Avoid the ad hominem. Maybe someone needs to compile a manual of academic etiquette, since so many faculty members and students today seem so proud of their belligerence.   

Image: Public Domain

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