Civility Website  |  Mediation Website  |  Harassment Response  |  Ombuds Homepage
home Princeton University Homepage
Report on Civility Forum
Constructive Change and New Beginnings

Co-sponsored by the University Ombuds Office
And the Frist Campus Center

November 7, 2001


Laurie Hall, Assistant Director of the Frist Campus Center
Anu Rao, University Ombuds Officer

Program Introduction

Anu Rao (excerpts follow)

     “Why civility programming?” you may ask. I want to make the case for civility as a prerequisite for fairness. We are a community whose goal is to enable the pursuit of knowledge through learning. We are a community of idealists; our work is about ideas and ideals. Yes, unabashedly we strive to create an idealized world where we can test the limits of knowledge and its applications. If we cannot create an ideal community, who can? If we cannot do it now, when we are at war, then when can we test our assumptions in the laboratory of a real life community?
     What has civility to do with the development of knowledge? Knowledge is dependent on truth, and truth is dependent on fairness. Fairness is possible when the rules are discussed and accepted by all. The discussion of rules and the open acknowledgment of boundaries is critical to a fair community. But mere rules, rule making, and enforcement of punishment will not guarantee fairness, because we live in a world of differential power and the very human tendency to be corrupt. How can we ensure that power will not be abused by those in stations of authority? What is the best way to ensure that we will not be terrorized by fear of unfair retaliation? How can we be sure that our learning will last beyond the tenure of a dispute? I do not have all the answers, but my sense of process tells me it is critical to build a trusting and respectful community as a first step. Indeed, in the same vein as my argument of civility as a condition for justice, Professor Stephen Carter has said that civility is a critical tool and skill if a democracy is to succeed.
     The creation of a fair community requires that we develop and maintain conditions of mutual respect. In order for us to have an enduring culture of respect and fairness, we must share our values with the community on a regular basis and ensure fair practices in all of our work. Civility and fairness, built on a foundation of honesty and mutual respect, must be part of the aesthetics of living, teaching, and learning that are designed into the architecture of our community.
     As in the larger society, there is racial and ethnic suspicion, disrespect and harassment at Princeton. Some individuals are treated unfairly, while others are treated unfairly because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or disability. There are those who exploit the goodness of others to try to gain an unfair advantage. If we want to erase suspicion and contempt, and create an ideal community, we have to be honest and respectful while being attentive to real concerns.
     Today, we are trying to recreate the notion of a community dialogue. We have invited concerned individuals from faculty, staff, and student groups to share and listen to the concerns of our community. We have two requests of each person present – one, that we observe the simple rule that we will speak and listen to each other with respect, and two, that there will be no retaliation for what is said today, since all concerns expressed here are for the purpose of improving the campus community. We have asked eight persons from different campus groups to address the forum. We will then follow their brief presentations with an open discussion in which we hope to generate ideas and plans for improving our community.
     Speakers, your task is to raise a civility concern and to propose a tool or mechanism that can assist in improving the human condition on campus. I have asked you to limit your presentation to three minutes since I know that you have the gift of compassion and brevity. After the first half hour of presentations we will open the discussion for comments and problem solving, exploring ideas within the collective strength that is present here.


The eight speakers who addressed the forum raised a variety of concerns, including:
  • our failure as a community to nurture diversity,
  • the necessity of examining the terms under which our norms are set,
  • the intimidation faced by students of Middle Eastern descent,
  • the silent workings of “class,”
  • the need for generating substantive dialogue, and
  • the angst underlying an ethos of politeness and gracious behavior.
Although it is impossible to recapture the atmosphere and tone generated collectively by the speakers, the following summaries of their remarks are intended to provide a window into the issues we face as a community, as well as to ideas which can lead to new bases of understanding and to constructive change.

Catherine Toppin, Class of 2002

     Toppin told the Forum that we do not do enough as a community to nurture our diversity. She said students do not feel the same nurturing and sense of community they did in high school and, as a result, can develop a lack of self-confidence, which leads in turn to poor grades. She said that many minority students do not feel a part of the Princeton academic community and that they also face difficult social issues here. Toppin said that diversity is not an issue for a few people, but is one of concern to all members of the community. She said that diversity programming was attended primarily by minorities. The question is how do we get others there? She suggested developing programs geared toward diversity issues, such as sensitivity training for community members, especially faculty, where diversity concerns come into play in the classroom. Toppin said that it is essential to develop a community of respect, one in which our differences are acknowledged.

Amada Sandoval, Interim Director, Women's Center
     Sandoval said it is important to be mindful of civility as a process of creating norms, and to work against a tendency to internalize norms without examining them. She emphasized the importance of examining the terms under which norms are set, saying that power is at stake when we exercise and invoke civility.
     Sandoval illustrated her points with two personal anecdotes. In one instance, she told the forum, a landlord had attempted to get her to comply with a request by saying, “I thought you would be nice enough to do that.” Sandoval pointed out that the use of the word, “nice,” was intended to have the power to force compliance--that her social investment in being perceived as nice would be strong enough for her do something that wasn't in her own best interest.
     In another incident, Sandoval told of a conversation with a woman student about being addressed as "baby". The student commented that “People call me baby because I look stupid. I’m surprised they would say that to you.” Rather than feeling misnamed by being called "baby", the student developed an unflattering explanation about herself to explain it. Sandoval used this example as a way of illustrating how norms are internalized without being examined, and the power and complicity we all have in setting norms.

Asli Bali, Graduate Student, Politics Department
     Bali addressed the forum, saying that we face a new set of issues this year as a result of September 11. Foreign students, she noted, face a particular problem with the nationalistic response to the crisis. The use of the flag as a symbol of solidarity leaves many international students without an appropriate way to express their solidarity with the community. Bali said we should remember that many of the victims of September 11th were themselves foreign nationals and that international students on campus feel themselves as vulnerable and under attack as members of any other community in America. She said that as a community, we have invited foreign students to join us in our intellectual project; it is, therefore, up to us to develop a response that suits the composition of our community. Bali also said that foreign students now face concerns about their immigration status. As a community, she stated, we are obligated to stand by the people we’ve invited here. She told the forum that we need to realize and remember that foreign students may find themselves in an asymmetric position in relation to the rest of us as a result of recent events. Bali stated that their position of vulnerability is something about which we as a community need to be concerned and attentive.
     Bali then went on to say that American Muslims of all ethnicities, especially Americans of Arab descent, are facing a climate of intimidation that most of us do not see or notice. She cited the example of a book display on terrorism, which included recent publications about the Taliban placed next to a stack of Korans, the Muslim holy scripture. She also cited incidents where students doing Arabic homework faced hostile questioning from others. Bali said that recent questions raised in campus publications regarding Middle Eastern cultural inferiority had been particularly difficult for Arab-American students, who felt that they had to justify their culture and to act as its representative in all conversations. She stated that demonization of the region led students to become defensive. Bali asked people to be attentive to the standards that are applied in statements made about the Middle East, stating that the same standards of tolerance, respect, concern, and academic integrity should be applied to the study of all cultures.

Judith Ferszt, Program Manager, American Studies
     Ferszt began by saying that she felt the essence of civility was “simply to treat everyone like people."* She said that while it was part of the Princeton culture to be nice, even gracious and charming, there was a tendency here to categorize people, drawing lines most often according to class. Ferszt said that, unlike the frequently discussed issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, class is not talked about at Princeton. She stated her belief that by ignoring the class issue, we have contributed to the fact that diversity initiatives are not as successful as had been hoped. She concluded by saying that she would like to see two changes at Princeton, first the beginning of a dialog about class consciousness and how it is harmful to a civil environment, and second a subtle but profound shift in the way we think, so that each person in our community is recognized and honored simply by virtue of being human—that we “treat everyone like people.” [*Quoted from Rubin Santiago-Hudson, Lackawanna Blues]

Tom Parker, Mail Services, and Union Local President
     Parker described civility as the root of our civilization and community as the group that provides the opportunities for its individual members. He said civilization is created by the series of steps each generation takes to move its culture higher. Parker said that each of us can take a step to make this a better place and that it has never been more that we do so than now. He suggested that we begin by offering each other a genuine greeting when we meet. He emphasized the importance of engaging in an ongoing dialogue, suggesting that our new campus center serve as a living room, a place where dialogue is generated. Parker said that we should seek through dialogue to discover the commonality within our diversity.

Rabbi James Diamond, Center for Jewish Life
     Rabbi Diamond began by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Rabbi Diamond told the forum that while Princeton is civil, lovely, polite, and gracious in many ways, that its civility lies on this side of complexity. He said that we are kidding ourselves if we think that we are on the other side, describing complexity as comprising all that with which we currently struggle: class, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.
     Rabbi Diamond addressed the nature of ignorance, saying that ignorance leads to distrust, which leads to hate, which leads to violence, which leads to murder, which leads to genocide. He stated that we all live in a certain measure of ignorance, but that we are a learning community and that we can engage in a discourse which gets us into the complexity in a good way. Rabbi Diamond told the forum that Princeton is lacking because it is a community of little enclaves, that as Frist was fashioned to “create a public space,” we must now create a public dialogue, one in which we are in touch with complex issues that will break the chain of ignorance. He suggested the creation of a public assembly. Saying that Princeton had once had “Chapel,” Rabbi Diamond told the forum that it was again time for a regular community assembly, one in which we engage together in a public discourse and begin to move into the complexity.

Open Discussion

Following is a list of some of the issues, thoughts, and suggestions raised in the open discussion portion of the forum:

What is Civility?
  • Politeness under the guise of civility is often used to ignore something real. People avoid dealing with feelings by labeling them as uncivil, when in fact they are using civility as a mask to ignore underlying problems and the emotions they generate. Feelings are not incompatible with civility. In fact, they are essential to it.
  • Civility can be a barrier, because people can be too focused on civility to admit their own responses.
  • What is nice? What does it mean? It is easier to define what is not nice, e.g., behaving in a condescending or derogatory way toward someone.
  • Civility—“treating people as people”—means staying in interaction, feeling feelings, and remaining authentic.
Creating Community
  • September 11 gave us all a common sense of being oppressed, negative reasons for coming together. Can we find positive reasons for coming together?
  • We are not all Princetonians in the same sense. A significant segment of our community are in service roles. These members will never have the aura of the academic side. The service end of our community is not equal.
  • It is important to find a way to gather as a community, to assemble together without drawing class or constituency lines.
  • We need more vehicles to know one another outside our categories and roles.
  • In creating an assembly, we must be mindful of how to make it inclusive, so that service personnel are not excluded by the needs of the assembly.
  • Students face issues of inferiority in the classroom. How do we raise this issue with the faculty?
  • Faculty will not go to sensitivity training, although many need to. How do students handle faculty insensitivities?
  • What kind of graduate would Princeton produce if we were a community steeped in civility, a community where every staff member served as a role model? We must support expectations that all our students rise to a standard of civility.
  • Students can spend much of their time drifting, especially in the first two years. They “land” when they find someone to talk to on a one-on-one basis. This is more apt to happen after they declare a departmental major, especially in smaller departments when they get to know staff on a personal basis. Staff can serve an important role in mentoring students about how to behave with faculty.
  • Students need to be nurtured. They come here young and in many ways myopic. It is part of our responsibility to foster their growth.
What Can We Do As Individuals?
  • We can choose not to accept it when someone treats us as though we are inferior. If we do not remain real and honest in all our interactions, we do a disservice to others as well as to ourselves.
  • We each need to be honest with ourselves, to own our own responses. None of us can see across the board. Our own racism, sexism, etc. keeps us from seeing across the board. How do we move beyond this?
  • We need to strip away labels, to make a conscious effort to change our thought patterns. One way to accomplish this is to begin with good words and good deeds, and allow good thoughts to follow [from the Zoroastrian faith]
  • Understanding of others often requires putting oneself in another’s place. How do we put ourselves in another’s shoes? Are there ways in which we can temporarily assume someone else’s role, as a way into understanding?
  • Interpersonal interaction is key to civility. We each need to take the initiative on a personal level on a daily basis, embrace those who are feeling isolated and bring them in.
What Can We Do as a Community?
  • How can we get where we want to go? A forum alone will not do it.
  • Civility workshops in all departments would be an important step in addressing the problem.
  • The work of creating a civil community must take place in many venues. Larger settings are important for getting the issues out, while the real work of changing attitudes and behaviors takes place elsewhere. The work must take place both through assembly and on an internal basis, within the group.
  • We can create a community of one accord, with civility as the common denominator. “CBWM” buttons would stand for “Civility begins with me.”
  • There is a need in our community for sensitivity and training.
  • We must create a climate where we can embrace our mistakes. Instead we have an environment where too often fear is generated when an error occurs. Mistakes are part of the learning process, a process which is enhanced when people are willing to take risks. A culture of blame and fear of error acts against the learning process. We need to ask ourselves how we handle mistakes.

See Story in the Daily Princetonian
Contact the Ombuds Office
Return to the Civility Website
Return to the Ombuds Homepage

prepared November 15, 2001