The new thought police

Joan W. Scott in The Nation:

ImageSince Wise's letter, a number of university leaders have echoed her invocation of civility. In September, Nicholas Dirks—once a postcolonial historian and anthropologist who wrote critically of British rule in India, and now chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley—released a statement to his campus community. Reminding his constituents that 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, he called for civility in terms that should surprise anyone who has studied the First Amendment or the long history of academic freedom: “We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin—the coin of open, democratic society.” Dirks seems to have forgotten that the Free Speech Movement was not an event characterized by civility either in its expression or in its suppression.

Within days of Dirks's statement, Eric Barron, the president of Penn State, released a video message to his own community deploring the erosion of civility in university discourse. The video was provoked by the controversy over a child-sexual-abuse scandal involving coaches of the school's fabled football team. “Respect is a core value at Penn State,” Barron said in a statement. And so “we ask you to consciously choose civility and to support those whose words and actions serve to promote respectful disagreement and thereby strengthen our community.”

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“Civility” has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

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