Modeling civility

Civility 3“Civil discourse is a cornerstone of democracy and a central tenet of academic freedom. Building on this tradition, we must set the stage for ‘civil behavior’ in all its forms.”

-Kevin Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin (UW) System and UW system institution chancellors (November 2010 joint letter to faculty, staff, and students)

Following various incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation, intolerance, and even violence at college and university campuses across the nation, leaders have been calling for an increased focus on civility in higher education. While some in higher education fear that a focus on civility might curtail their academic freedom or freedom of speech, UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells asserts that it is quite the opposite. In an address to his campus community he said, Academic freedom and free speech require open, safe, civil, and collegial campus environments grounded in reasoned inquiry, intellectual honesty, scholarly competence, and the pursuit of new knowledge.”  He also added that, “Uncivil behavior is not well understood in part because we do not have enough opportunity to develop shared agreements as to what constitutes civil behavior.”

Today you can google “civility and higher education” and find a multitude of campus communities that are working on efforts to gain agreement about what constitutes civil or respectful behavior. Some are developing ground rules to encourage civil discourse in the classroom and meetings, others are creating policies or civility training, and still others are involving faculty, staff, and students in ongoing dialogue to increase civility.

These are all laudable efforts. But some leaders may wonder where do you start? If that’s the case with you, I think it helps to start where you have the most control. Start with yourself… and begin modeling civility. In his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni, professor and co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University,  identifies 25 things each of us can do on an individual basis to model civility. They include:

  1. Pay attention
  2. Acknowledge others
  3. Think the best
  4. Listen
  5. Be inclusive
  6. Speak kindly
  7. Don’t speak ill
  8. Accept and give praise
  9. Respect even a subtle “no”
  10. Respect others’ opinions
  11. Mind your body
  12. Be agreeable
  13. Keep it down (and rediscover silence)
  14. Respect other people’s time
  15. Respect other people’s space
  16. Apologize earnestly and thoughtfully
  17. Assert yourself
  18. Avoid personal questions
  19. Care for your guests
  20. Be a considerate guest
  21. Think twice before asking for favors
  22. Refrain from idle complaints
  23. Give constructive criticism
  24. Respect the environment and be gentle to animals
  25. Don’t shift responsibility and blame

While it’s a long list and seems somewhat like common sense, I challenge you to rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for each of the 25 rules. How did you do?

I know that some of them come very easily for me, but that I need to work on others. For instance, it comes very naturally for me to give praise and credit to others; however, in a time where we are all multi-tasking with instant access to texts and email on our phones, it can be challenging to just focus and pay attention.

Anita Rios



One response to “Modeling civility

  1. Julie Smendzuik-O'Brien

    Nice reflection on civility. We can’t assume that we all know what it is, can we?

    I appreciate your taking the time to write about it.


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