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Civility in California Higher Education

As we said in an earlier post, civity is related to civility. Civity’s bridging relationships of respect, empathy, and trust, which enable collaboration and creativity to tackle common challenges, can more easily emerge when civility is present. In this post, guest bloggers Michele Siqueiros and David Wolf illuminate impediments to civility and how civility connects back to trust – in the specific context of higher education. Welcome, Michele and David, to the Civity Blog!

Civility in California Higher Education

By Michele Siqueiros and David B. Wolf

We are advocates for higher education in our home state, California. We believe in its ability to promote key aspects of California’s interpretation of American life. This means not only assisting all students to achieve their economic goals but also enhancing the personal development of each individual around high-minded values: being a good citizen, contributing to the common good, promoting opportunity for everyone and respecting differences of background and expressed opinion.

Indeed, it is higher education that is built on the notion that the pursuit of the truth is based on the candid and respectful exchange of information and points of view.

That California’s institutions of higher education have, in fact, promoted these values is, we believe, beyond question. That said, we have witnessed behaviors that have, in recent decades, shaken our confidence in higher education as an exemplar of these values. We cite three types of examples:

The first are unseemly attacks by individuals within colleges and universities. Two faculty members may disagree on a professional matter, or more commonly, one or more faculty members may disagree with some administrative authority over a decision. That the disagreement takes place is, of course, a healthy part of exchange in higher education. But when the disagreement ceases to focus on the issue at hand, and moves to the personal, respect and civility vacate the discussion.

Disputes between organizational elements are a second example. Most common, officials from either faculty senates or employee unions take on senior administrators or members of a board of trustees. Again, important and even intense negotiations as part of organizational life are essential. But when these discussions lapse to personal attacks on individuals, higher education ceases to uphold its place as an exemplar for intelligent and purposeful exchange.

Third, the improvement of higher education, particularly its public institutions, is fundamentally dependent on dispassionate, evidence-based evaluation by qualified experts. Reviews take place from time to time and usually provoke vigorous debate that ultimately leads to meaningful change. On occasion, however, these studies are met with withering attacks on the authors, again moving from substance to personal denigration.

All of these examples of disharmony get amplified and distorted through the media; there is nothing quite as attractive as sharp-tongued language involving articulate, agitated players.

A two-part approach to improve civility in higher education immediately comes to mind. Our goal is to ensure that discourse within the higher education community is civil, but to do this in a manner that is in keeping with the traditions and systems that are respected within higher education.

We envision the institutions and their professional organizations themselves developing specific internal standards establishing acceptable levels of mutual respect for exchanges on campus. This does not intrude on academic freedom as what is discussed is in no way limited. Moreover, improper behavior would be addressed first within the professional community itself.

We urge the accrediting agencies in California to formulate a requirement that colleges have a policy on civility on campus. We are aware that in some cases individual accreditors have noted problems of the sort discussed here and have sanctioned institutions within existing standards frameworks. However, requiring institutions to explicitly deal with the concept of civility calls each college or university to frame the issue as appropriate and then construct policy and procedures best suited to it individually. Accreditation is a powerful and proven tool for promoting improvement in academe—we urge that it be employed here.

Polls on the attitudes of Americans have indicated that regard for organizations has declined somewhat in recent decades. Higher education institutions still command the respect of most Americans. This is a position to be energetically protected. Maintaining high standards of civility on campus will make a major contribution in this regard.

Michele is the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity where she is focused on ensuring that California policymakers and college leaders increase college access, improve college graduation rates, and finally close the persistent gaps in both of these areas for our growing diverse population.

David's career was spent primarily in California higher education concluding as Executive Director of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (WASC). In retirement he continues to seek improvements in this vital service for California citizens.

#MicheleSiqueiros #DavidWolf #california #highereducation

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