September 19, 2018 | ° F

Campaign spends year encouraging civility on campus

With Project Civility coming to a close for the semester, Kathleen Hull, co-founder of the campaign, said she would have never imagined the amount of attention it received from both the University and the outside community.

"In light of the tragedy that we had with [Tyler Clementi's] suicide and the context of that situation which is not clear, a lot of people started attaching the word ‘civility' or ‘incivility' to that event and therefore, our project got kind of caught up in that," said Hull, director of the Byrne Family First-Year Seminars.

Since the beginning of the campaign last September, Hull and Senior Dean of Students Mark Schuster encountered confrontations with the media when some outlets tried to misinterpret their words.

She said her job during the aftermath of the Tyler Clementi suicide was to defend the University as an institution against negative portrayals in the media.

"We knew the strength of Rutgers and how wonderful it is," Hull said. "We're not an uncivil place, and the kind of problems that we have at Rutgers are the same kinds of problems you find all over the country."

Despite the challenges Hull faced with the media, she said one of the most surprising results of Project Civility was that other colleges contacted the Office of Student Affairs and Undergraduate Education to have similar programs at their school.

"They consider this project — which was really done at a very low budget with a very small group of people — a model," Hull said.

Other colleges wanted Project Civility because it was student-driven, she said. The offices conducted early focus groups in which they asked students what kinds of issues they believed were important at the University and worth discussing.

Student filmmakers expressed their views about the University and their Project Civility films are what Hull called some of the strongest products of the school year.

"These experiences that we have, these conversations — they fade away, but we actually have these films," Hull said. "Those films are something I am very proud of [because of] the thought that went into them and the love that went into them by the students."

Project Civility's goal for this year was to engage the whole community in a conversation about vocabulary, Hull said.

"Those of us who are in universities as teachers and as learners — it's so important for us to learn how to utilize language well and be articulate to not harm other people and to be as clear as we possibly can," she said.

As for Project Civility completing its objective surrounding language, Hull said the awareness of the project became widespread at the University.

"[At] a lot of our events … we had people here, but we didn't have huge crowds of people here," she said. "I felt that the quality of the programming was worthwhile for the people that were there."

Project Civility's final showcase for the semester concluded Wednesday night at the Rutgers Student Center Multipurpose Room on the College Avenue campus with a debate exhibition titled "Does Civility Promote Freedom, Democracy and Equality?"

Hull said the debate was one of the various programs throughout the year she needed to think carefully about, especially after the number of media coverage focusing on the campaign.

Two members of the Rutgers-Newark Debate Team, Carlos Astacio and Elijah Smith, debated in whether civility promotes freedom, democracy and equality. Guest debater Gabriel Escobar, a political officer in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, joined them.

Farhan Ali and David Reiss of the Rutgers University Debate Union, gave opposing positions on the matter, while Elizabeth Sloan-Power, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at Rutgers-Newark guest debated on their side.

Astacio, a Newark College of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said without civility people would not be able to move beyond ad hominem attacks and defamatory strikes.

"Despite how persuasive one's ideas may be, when associated with animosity and aggression, people are more likely to disregard one advocacy because of incivility," he said. "Reform grounded in persuasion is the better form of reform because there is a mindset shift where people want to comply with one's demands."

In opposition, Reiss, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said people should feel it is acceptable to express offensive views, to make other people angry and to disrespect other people's opinions because it is necessary for a free society.

"If you like all these freedoms given to you by the founding fathers, then how was this country founded?" said Ali, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "Was it founded by civility or was it founded by actually fighting for your rights or fighting for oppression?"

Hull said Wednesday nights' debate was an example of people effectively communicating with one another and showing the complexity of debate and the different aspects of an issue

"At the end of this debate they were actually able to say to one other, ‘You know what? I'm going to move out of my debate hat, take that off, and I could say there's two sides to this, and we were both right' — and I think they were both right," she said.

Schuster said he was committed to making sure the Rutgers-Newark Debate Team was a part of the event.

Although Schuster saw the different styles of debate and mixing faculty between the two teams caused pushback, he said it was better than he expected and saw it as an act of civility, a discourse he would like to see proliferate throughout the community.

"I'm also hoping that the media and the University start focusing on provocative dialectics that are academic and spirited instead of focusing on the negatives and the violence and the hatred to talk through these issues," he said.

Reena Diamante

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