ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Jewish students in the University of California system labeled terrorists for their support of Israel. Black high school students pelted by bananas on a Tennessee campus tour. A hostile student in Maryland challenging his professor to a fight after the teacher limited the use of cell phones and laptops during lectures.
In a society where anonymous Internet commenters freely lob insults, and politicians spew partisan barbs, the decline of basic civility isn’t limited to academia. But the push for more polite discourse — often as an extension of more entrenched diversity efforts — is firmly taking root on campus.
From the University of Missouri to Penn State and Vanderbilt, colleges across the country are treating the erosion of common decency as a public health epidemic on par with measles outbreaks and sexually transmitted diseases.
“What we’re trying to do is remind me people of what they already know, to get back in touch with things they probably learned growing up,” said Noel English, who heads a new Missouri civility campaign called “Show Me Respect,” a nod to the state’s nickname.
The Missouri campaign comes after two white students pleaded guilty in April 2010 to misdemeanor littering charges for dumping cotton balls outside the school’s black culture center during Black History Month; the students were sentenced to 80 hours of community service, two years of probation and had their driver licenses suspended for two months. A 2009 survey of more than 3,500 students found that nearly one in seven reported incidents of harassment on campus, from racial slurs to hostile emails.
At a campus civility workshop earlier this week, Eric Waters, a junior from Mansfield, Texas, who is the football team’s starting tight end, described how other students often label Mizzou football players as “mean” and “disrespectful” womanizers, sometimes to his face.
“It’s not about the stereotypes people put on us,” he said. “We try to carry ourselves like true gentlemen.”
The University of Tennessee enacted its civility campaign in 2011. There had been a cotton ball incident at the Knoxville school’s black cultural center after President Barack Obama’s election and, in 2010, bananas were thrown at a group of more than 100 black high school students from Memphis during a campus visit.
“We want to be a campus that’s welcoming to all, and hostile to none,” said Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who now outlines the school’s 10 “principles of civility and community” at freshman orientation. The shared values range from inclusivity and collegiality to respect and integrity.
In some cases, the campus civility campaigns are being challenged by First Amendment advocates who fear that such programs muzzle unpopular speech in the name of tolerance and diversity.
That was the complaint at North Carolina State University, which revised a residence hall policy that, among other stipulations, prohibited dorm dwellers from wearing T-shirts or hanging posters “disrespectful and hurtful to others” while also requiring students to “confront behavior or report to staff incidents of incivility and intolerance.”
The new policy now includes a written caveat calling the civility effort a set of “voluntary expectations” while emphasizing that the school is “strongly committed to freedom of expression.”
“Civility is an important value,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which protested the Raleigh university’s civility policy. “But at the same time, it can’t be made the paramount issue in a free society, because there has to be space for people who have intense feelings about things to express those feelings in a way that really communicates the urgency and the depths of feeling that lies behind their opinions.”
When campuses attempt to compel civil behavior, Shibley said, they become “so committed to civility that if you say something uncivil, you are going to be penalized In some way, that’s going too far. It starts to infringe on the very expressions that are protected by the First Amendment.”
Many credit Pier Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, as the dean of the campus civility movement. He started the Hopkins Civility Project 15 years ago, wrote the 2002 book “Choosing Civility” and is a frequent guest speaker on other campuses, including at Missouri earlier this year.
For Forni, the culprits behind contemporary incivility are numerous, from what he called “the crisis of civil engagement” in this country to eroding workplace manners to “radical informality” heightened by Facebook and related social media. Yet he has no interest in making civil behavior a campus requirement.
“Civility should be promoted, not believed in,” he said. “Civility is not something to enforce. “
Among the schools embracing those beliefs is the University of Arizona, which last year opened the National Institute for Civil Discourse after the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In 2010, Rutgers University launched its “Project Civility” just before freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself when a roommate secretly recorded the teen’s sexual encounter with another man. English, the Missouri campaign leader, said the New Jersey student’s suicide helped influence her decision to start a program on campus.
She, too, favors the voluntary approach, though her initial instincts said otherwise.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m a lawyer, we need a rule or a policy,’ but then my thinking was, ‘That’s not really necessary,”’ she said. “We can have all the policies in the world, but what we want to do is raise awareness and get people thinking ... We want to change the culture so it just becomes embedded.”
Or, as Noor Azizan-Gardner, Missouri’s chief diversity officer, put it: “I’m hoping when they graduate they will know what it means to be civil, kind and compassionate.”