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A university plays host to many conflicts: conflicts over such matters as the use of institutional resources, personnel decisions, and the development and implementation of policies. These conflicts arise for a variety of reasons: different views on the appropriate nature and mission of the institution; conflicting perspectives on the most effective means to achieve certain goals; varying judgments on issues of quality or fairness; and competing priorities among different schools, departments or units.
The issue I want to explore is the role civility should play in the management of an institution, especially in the management and resolution of these kinds of conflicts. To what extent, and for what reasons, would we want to argue that civility should mark the way we do business in a university?
The professionalism literature is full of calls for civility these days, especially in the field of law where I do my work. Civility means more than a superficial politeness. I want to emphasize that I am not talking about a veneer of gentility that at some times, in some places, masks a vicious manipulation of others. Civility embraces a generosity, tolerance and charity in public discourse and personal interaction, qualities that stand in contrast to a ruthless partisanship that can be characterized as intemperate, mean and overly zealous. But I think much of the contemporary discussion makes it too easy to be on the side of civility. These calls for a more polite, more congenial style of interaction can almost be summed up by saying "It's nice to be nice." But these discussions do not call our attention to the fact that a more moderate, congenial style often comes at a cost.
From the outset, I want to stress that my focus is not on civility as an effective way to advocate one's position. When civility is valued in this way, the conversation is reduced to considerations of tactics and strategy. Some commentators seem to be recalling the old saying, "What goes around, comes around," and are suggesting that fair, honest treatment of others will result in fair, honest treatment of oneself. And, to complete the argument, a fair and honest consideration of one's point of view enhances its prospects for prevailing in the institutional give-and-take; intemperate and mean-spirited actions create hostility and opposition and are ultimately self-defeating.
The implication seems to be that you can have it all, that you can achieve the most desirable ends by employing the most desirable means. But the most interesting moral questions arise when you cannot have it all, and the topic of civility becomes interesting only when civility is viewed as having a value of its own, a value that would at times lead one to pursue moderation at the expense of effectively advancing the pursuit of important goals. "Important goals" should be understood in the context of this discussion as important institutional achievements, not merely self-interested, personal gain. Acting out of an interest in the institutional common good implies a willingness to subordinate one's personal welfare to that of the broader community.
A fiduciary is a person who has a duty, created by a particular undertaking, to act primarily for another's benefit. She has a duty to subordinate her personal interest to that of another in matters connected with the undertaking. It may be helpful to think about whether an analogous obligation exists for those of us who have accepted particular positions in a university. In undertaking the job as an Associate Dean at Vanderbilt University, I may well have incurred a duty to act primarily for the benefit of others in the institution, and for the benefit of those whom the university is to serve. But determining that I am to act in their interest does not answer the question of how I should act in their interest. If there is any apartness to civility, if civility is anything more than the result of calculating the most effective way to advance a specific interest, then there will be times when valuing civility calls for a style of response that does not maximize one's advocacy of institutional or community well-being.
Perhaps I should pause here a moment before being charged with ignoring the best answer to my question simply to make the topic more interesting. Is a choice necessary? Can a civil, decent, dedicated person accomplish just as much as a ruthless, uncompromising partisan? Perhaps, sometimes. But certainly we have to acknowledge that this is not always the case. In a university setting, I have witnessed an experienced, highly effective administrator bully others so badly that they accepted his position just to avoid the unpleasantness of his anger. And this was not a one-time occurrence. This person had deliberately developed this technique as a way of "winning" in conflictual situations. He once described to me how he calculated the degree of his anger to gain the upperhand in such situations. In a similar vein, I have been counseled to make it easier for the person I was petitioning to say "yes" than to say "no" -- when the persuasive technique involved was not a convincing argument on the merits, but a relentless, obstructionist, harassing mode of discourse calculated to overwhelm the patience and resolve of another. Such tactics parallel the use of nuisance lawsuits which are often settled not because there is any merit to the claims but because there are economic and personal advantages to compromising even in the face of groundless claims.
Many in the legal profession have decried the lack of civility in current interactions among attorneys. Things did not get this way by accident. Lawyers engage in such untoward conduct because they believe it works. I once talked with a Divinity student who had abandoned the practice of law because of what he felt were the pressures to adopt the unsavory practices of a "hired gun." He went on to tell me, however, that if one of his children were ever in serious trouble, he would go out and get one of those "hired guns." The problem I have with hired guns is not that they are trained and willing to see both sides of a dispute and will argue in favor of the person that writes them the check. Frankly, the ability to understand and appreciate both sides of a conflict can be important to fostering a civil atmosphere. Hired guns become a problem when they engage in abusive tactics that are demeaning to the profession and destructive of our social fabric.
If these examples, or perhaps better ones you can think of, do suggest that uncivil means are sometimes effective ways of getting to certain ends, then the question remains. Do we grant civility something more than instrumental value? Is it something more than a way to get what we want? Are there times when we should choose less than the most effective route in our attempts to persuade the university (or others in it) to pursue what we think is the right course of action? If so, how would we recognize those times? On what basis can we argue for civil means at the expense of better ends? One answer is that we can argue for civil means on the same basis that we limit any pursuit of utilitarian goals. The platitude is that "the ends don't always justify the means." Michael Walzer, in his classic essay "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,"1 suggests that instinctively we know that we are not pure utilitarians. In his essay, he uses two illustrations, both involving persons we know to be morally good people: the politician who makes a deal with a dishonest ward boss in order to win an election, and a political leader who tortures a prisoner in an effort to learn the location of hidden bombs, set to go off in apartment buildings. While these illustrations describe more egregious behavior than we normally see in a university -- or at least than we see in my university -- they further Walzer's point that we have reservations about violating moral principles, even in the pursuit of worthy goals. For those unconvinced by the difficult illustrations Walzer chooses, mixing the examples clarifies the issue: would we approve of the torture of a prisoner to gain an advantage in a democratic election, even if we otherwise supported the candidate? At some point we recognize something like Kant's imperative: that we should respect persons, that we should not treat others merely as means. And, I would argue, if our treatment of others is a no-holds-barred partisanship, then they are reduced to means in the service of our chosen ends.
Of course, at times people argue persuasively that in some cases the ends do justify the means. Once again to mix Walzer's examples, would many of us not approve of making a deal with a dishonest ward boss to build some schools in order to save hundreds of innocent people from dying at the hands of terrorists? Thus, the suggestion is often that we resort to a balancing test: How good are the ends? How bad are the means? Which one outweighs the other?
Before I suggest a different frame of reference, I would like to consider another perspective on this means-ends distinction as it relates to civility. As the issue has just been posed, the tradeoff is framed as one between the value of a civil means of interaction and the value of achieving the best ends possible. A different set of issues is engaged when we think of civility itself valued as an end we seek and then examine the effect the pursuit of that end has on the means that we employ. Framed as an end, civility is one of the goals, alongside others, that we pursue in a university. That has a nice ring to it. We do think of universities as places of collegiality and communal interaction. Once again, I want to distinguish this valuing of civility from the instrumental valuation. I am not talking about creating a civil environment to help us improve recruitment, retention or productivity of faculty, staff or students. Or, perhaps more tempting these days, to provide a happy experience for future donors. I want to focus on civility as an end we seek to achieve, and there can be problems with the means used to create this desired end-state. For illustrations, I will focus on the management of information in a university, especially in communication among various parties. I can imagine (indeed, I have observed and may even admit to having conducted) a conversation in which one party conveyed information from a prior, confidential discussion in order to help set a civil tone. In the service of civility, one could withhold information that she judges might lead to undesirable conduct. One could censor or edit the comments of others in ways that portray less than an accurate picture to avoid hostile responses. These are questionable means: breaches of confidence, deception, distorting or mischaracterizing or concealing. Are there times when such means are justified for the sake of producing a less rancorous, less contentious, more civil, cordial environment?
This line of questioning focuses on a second kind of uncivil behavior. The first type is characterized by brutalizing assaults in which tactics such as intimidation and personal threats are used to beat colleagues into submission. A code of civility should also rule out of bounds a second type of behavior which is perhaps less violent and more subtle. Examples of this second type include lying and other forms of deceit, breaking promises and abandoning commitments, withholding information from those who have a legitimate right or need to know. Evaluating this type of behavior on the civility meter can be complicated in those instances in which the ostensible justification for the conduct is to promote a more pleasant, less hostile environment. In such cases, though, some difficult moral questions remain.
If full, blunt disclosures of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth can at times be obstacles to creating a civil environment, shouldn't we still be concerned about the arrogance of those who decide they are the appropriate people to manage and repackage the truth? Does the pursuit of cordial relations really matter more than a full, open, honest, frank debate of different views on important issues? Or is integrity and honesty entailed in any genuine sense of civility?
A convincing argument for civility is not that it makes us feel better because we are uncomfortable with confrontation. The lessons of history have taught us that morality often demands doing things that feel uncomfortable. We know that sometimes the right thing to do (however you choose to define or discover "right") is to challenge, to confront. Finally, in fact, the civility I am talking about is call for action that at times demands confrontation and challenge. The civility I am talking about is not a facade, a papering over of genuine differences, or an avoidance of real value conflicts. It is, rather, a communal interaction in which we can learn and grow and struggle together, honestly and critically contributing our knowledge and values and biases for the common good. Vigorous debate is welcomed, as long the airing of differences aims at the resolution of conflict rather than the cultivation of conflict.
Parker Palmer has written eloquently about the way higher education should respond to the collapse of civic virtue in our society.2 We destroy community, he writes, as we make objects of one another, objects to be manipulated for our own private ends. The antidote is a public encounter in which the whole group can win as we check, correct and enlarge the views of individuals by drawing on the broader community. We do not participate meaningfully in a community--such as a university--when we ignore or patronize others. Nor do we honor our commitment to the community when we withdraw from conversation, even a potentially conflictual conversation, refusing to give the group the benefit of our values, beliefs and knowledge.
Following Palmer's lead, we should think about the special obligations universities have to model civility. While we might hope that this type of communal interaction would be present in all forms of institutional life, the unique mission of colleges and universities brings an added dimension to the conversation. When we teach, whether in the classroom, or publication or in other campus settings, what is important is not only what we teach but how we teach it. Indeed, the "how" is part and parcel of the "what." Knowledge is not an object that we can distribute in the ways that we might distribute washing machines or automobiles. The manner in which we pursue the educational process speaks volumes to students, colleagues and the broader community.
Thus a university's teaching mission entails developing and nurturing of civil modes of discourse that embody the values that are important to us. It is fairly easy, and I presume these days almost unobjectionable, to talk about the ways in which we want teaching faculty to be encouraging, supportive and nurturing of a civil, respectful search for truth in the classroom. A different topic of conversation is the role that institutional members who are not teaching faculty can play in the university's educational mission. One part of that conversation is to recognize that promoting and practicing civility is everyone's job. This applies to the people who put up the mail or do the photocopies or coach the football teams or dispense financial aid. Each of these individuals communicates through her words and deeds the values the university embraces and is passing on to others.
University chancellors and presidents and the like have a special responsibility in this regard. These people are in positions that might tempt them to use intimidation or superior power in ways that are contrary to the spirit of civility. Such individuals must exercise extraordinary care to be civil in both of the ways I have described. And, obviously, what is called for is not some public demonstration project that is paraded out for students to see from time to time. Leaders who do not have a genuine commitment to civility will be found out and, more importantly, will be squandering an opportunity to infuse the institution with the kind of generosity, tolerance and charity that should be fundamental to any well-considered notion of academic excellence.
Civility at base is a respect for others and you do not respect those you do not take seriously. Refusing to engage someone in a meaningful way is a sign of indifference or contempt, not of respect. Further, a genuine respect for others may well start with respect for one's self, and it is difficult to respect yourself when you either: (1) mistreat others through callous, mean-spirited assault (the ordinary definition of incivility) or (2) abandon your own beliefs and moral values when you encounter contrary positions.
What does this mean as we contemplate the value of civility in the midst of competing university priorities? I would like to cast this issue as something other than a weighing of Kantian and utilitarian considerations, something other than balancing means and ends as if we were some external observer with an Archimdean platform on which to place our balancing scales. Rather, I would like to offer an image of ourselves as moral decision-makers that focuses on accepting the limits within which we live and act. All of our lives are lived within the limits of those who surround us. The university is the particular limit-setting context we have addressed this weekend. Civility is, I think, finally about a humility that comes from living with a sense of inevitable limits. In a recent issue of the Hastings Center Report, William May, in commenting on Dan Callahan's life and work, observes that there is "something morally unsavory about the ideal of absolute control." 3 We are called to reject, in May's words, the "extravagant indulgence of the limitless self."4
If we reject this moral arrogance, I believe the problem of civility will take care of itself. On the one hand, if we acknowledge and live out of our connectedness with others, we will have laid the groundwork for striking the civil tone that is needed in our institutional lives. We must avoid a domestication that stifles personal courage. Civility should not be equated with passivity and acquiescence. Institutions suffer when conflict is avoided because it is unpleasant. But, on the other hand, the courage called for does not necessarily lead to high decibel level conversations or belligerent confrontations. Indeed, throwing verbal bombs may be a device for avoiding the personal give-and-take that is the heart of a civil pursuit of institutional benefit.
Old Turtle 5 is one of those children's books that really isn't a children's book. Although the pictures are pretty and the words are plain, the message is profound. In this book the author's legend recounts a time when the people forgot who they were, and where God was, and they misused their powers and hurt one another and killed one another and hurt the earth. Until Old Turtle spoke, "Please, STOP." "And after a long, lonesome and scary time...the people listened, and began to hear...And to see God in one another..." I don't think you have to be of any particular theological persuasion to appreciate the point I want to make, although some people may prefer a label different than "God" -- perhaps something like "sacred source of goodness and intrinsic worth."
As an administrator in a university, I do my best work when I see God in each person I encounter. No matter how unreasonable the demand, no matter how petty the complaint, how far-fetched the request, how irreconcilable the differences, or how insulting the charge, each of these is brought to my desk by a member of our institutional community. And when I see the face of God in that person's face, even when my answer is "No," I find the question of when to be civil a much less difficult question.
1Michael Walzer, "Political Actions: The Problem of Dirty Hands," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, (1973): 160-180.
2Parker J. Palmer, "Community, Conflict, and Ways of Knowing," Change (September/October, 1987): 20-25.
3William May, Hastings Center Report (Nov./Dec. 1996): 19.
5Douglas Wood, Old Turtle (Duluth, MN: Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, 1992).
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Last updated: July 22, 1997