November 2021

Reprinted with permission from Hamline University. View the full original article, which was published on Summer/Fall 2021 issue of the Hamline University Magazine.

Statement of civility promotes respectful engagement and interaction

In his inaugural address on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden urged Americans to come together. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. Uniting these United States will be a long and difficult task but it’s essential to heal our nation, and it requires we treat each other with dignity and respect.

Members of the Hamline community have reason to be proud, since the institution had already taken steps to promote civil discourse and relationship building within our community. Last October Hamline introduced a statement of civility to guide how we interact and engage with one another.

Disturbing incivility

Hamline President Fayneese Miller
Hamline President Fayneese Miller

The civility statement is a direct response to campus discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion, springing from a desire to educate. In the fall of 2019, an off-campus issue raised questions on the topic of civility and led Hamline to examine how it was preparing its students to be more equitable, fair and socially aware.

Hamline President Fayneese Miller, PhD, and other leaders were concerned by how the issue was addressed at community meetings and the tone some attendees took. According to President Miller, the focus needed to be on how the Hamline community could improve on issues of race, equity and inclusion rather than focusing on a need to punish. “How do we do a better job of interacting with and respecting each other rather than blaming and pointing fingers?” Miller asked. How do we become a better institution, better people, rather than looking for faults? How do we structure the educational experience in ways that encourage critical thought and action?”

It became apparent that some sort of civility statement could help establish a safe harbor for civil speech and discourse — a statement encouraging the expression of different viewpoints and productive dialogue at the same time.

Crafting the statement

“There was a need to frame how we have conversations, who we are, and how we interact and talk to one another. A civility statement would say, ‘We value each other and need to be kind, patient and understanding with each other,’” said Miller. “In 2015 when I was installed as president, I talked about my hopes for this institution and what it means to be part of a civil society. It would lead to critical and thoughtful dialogue and eventually positive action.” We need to set the framework on how we listen (to), respect, encourage and support each other.”

The process of creating the civility statement began last summer after George Floyd’s death. Director of Communications Jeff Papas had discussions with David Everett, PhD, associate vice president of inclusive excellence; and David Schultz, PhD, distinguished university professor of political science and legal studies. Their task was to generate a plan and draft a statement.

The three crafted a statement that speaks to who we are at Hamline, what we aspire to do and what we need to do.

David Schultz
David Schultz

Schultz gathered information and contacted the American Association of University Professors to inform the process. The group incorporated input from the community, and in October 2020, Hamline formally adopted the drafted statement.

“I found approximately 50 civility statements, but some were really speech codes. I tried to define what I liked and disliked about each,” said Schultz. “It was important to balance academic freedom within the classroom for discussing controversial topics. Don’t make it personal. It’s important to articulate our ideas in words while having a civil discussion.”

“Barely 50% of learning at colleges happens in the classroom. The balance occurs in conversations in dorm rooms and cafeterias over pizza or bad coffee,” Schultz said. “How do we have discussions in a way that respects others’ rights and views? Not everyone chooses words that don’t offend others. We want intellectual discourse, but it’s not always polite because it elicits passion.”

How we got here

David Everett
David Everett

The power and prevalence of social media has resulted in information bubbles and echo chambers where many people believe only the news sources that dovetail with their worldview. Increasingly, we interact only with those who hold similar views.

“Social media is a huge contributor to our incivility as a society. Look at the events of the past several months and the unrest over the election results,” Everett said. “Social media has become a different way of expressing our point of view without understanding other points of view, a way to avoid other views and support your own view.”

“We need to have a space where people can gather and discuss ideas, and as an institution that’s where we want to be,” said Papas. “Hamline is grounded in a social justice approach to both academic and social curricular activities. The way forward toward a more civil and just society is to talk to each other, have reasoned debate and seek consensus wherever possible.”

Why civility matters

“Civility allows one to critically engage and interrogate thoughts and ideas, it’s very easy at times to also condemn those you might be engaging with,” Everett said. “Civility keeps what’s on the table around the thought, rather than attacking the individual. It’s easy to think, ‘If the person doesn’t agree with me, they’re wrong.’ A better approach is to try to understand the person’s perspective in a way that's insightful rather than indicting.”

By Tom Brandes