Forums Discuss Civility, Improving St. Mary’s

While much of the controversy over the Chick-fil-a boycott has subsided, at least in outward expressions,  many on campus have taken the aftermath to consider how St. Mary’s can be a safer, more open and respectful place where discussion about important and potentially divisive issues can happen in positive and constructive ways.  Several recent meetings and forums on this issue have facilitated discussions on the presence of prejudice on campus, the role of civility, the difference between  tolerance and respect, and what students, faculty and staff can do to build the type of community they would like to live and work in.

Dean of Students Laura Bayless called a meeting on Tuesday April 12 of the Student Affairs staff, made up of Residence life, Judicial Board, Student Activities and Health and Counseling offices. The meeting was also attended by a number of student leaders. The purpose was to discuss and brainstorm strategies for the coming year about the issue of incivility on campus, and find ways to expand the conversation to include the entire campus. Bayless said that “it was clear that the students needed to be part of the conversation, given that a large part of the incidents were related to students.” Bayless also expanded upon some of the unclearness that surrounded the incidents of harassment, saying that there were a few incidents that were “very severe and required investigation….some people may think this discussion is just about being polite, but that is not what I mean when I talk about civility.” While releasing details of the harassment and abusive behavior is not possible, Bayless stressed that these issues were something that demanded action on the part of Student Affairs. “I’m happy this conversation is happening,” she said. “Its an opportunity to help shape the community in ways that are important to us.”

One way Student Affairs is addressing this issue is through creating some new responsibilities for certain positions within Student Affairs, specifically the creation of a peer mediation program to possibly deal with issues around LGBTQ students, but also problems with harassment and prejudice on campus in general. Other ideas and plans involve programming during orientation, increased visibility of the ‘St. Mary’s Way’ and reaching students on this issue through SGA sponsored clubs and activities.

A forum on prejudice on the St. Mary’s campus was hosted by first-year Jessica McCarter on Wednesday April 13 as a response to the recent issues of harassment. McCarter is a student in the DeSousa Brent program and as part of the program students host different events on campus. McCarter said she wanted to host a discussion on prejudice because she is “interested in different types of prejudice on the St. Mary’s campus,” and was confused when some said they didn’t see prejudice happening on campus, wondering, “didn’t they see all the emails? Haven’t they been talking to people and hearing about this? I wanted to have an event to talk about what I was seeing with other students.”

At the forum, students that attended described several different types of prejudice they have encountered on campus introduced issues of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and even involvement in the DeSousa Brent program. Attendees said they have experienced prejudice at the hands of other students but also from faculty in the classroom. Said sophomore Brittany Davis, “There definitely is a lot of prejudice on this campus. We all come from different places….but civility doesn’t mean just sweeping things under the rug. We need to understand each other. Confrontation and awkward conversations aren’t always a bad thing.” Attendees agreed that having more conversations about race, gender identity and sexuality on campus would be one way to start to approach these issues.

President Joseph Urgo also held a special President’s Forum on Wednesday April 20 facilitated by Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sybol Anderson and Director of the Library Celia Rabinowitz. The forum was titled “Building a Better St. Mary’s” and was well-attended by students, faculty and staff a like. Urgo remarked at the opening that while “everyone is in favor of civility…passionate feelings stretch our civil instincts.” Anderson echoed these sentiments as well, saying, “the thing I’d like us to think about today is the conditions under which our discourse becomes uncivil…the recent climate on campus has been uncharacteristic of the story we tell ourselves and world about St. Mary’s.”

The forum was conducted through general questions posed to the audience that were then answered by members of the audience. Some of the questions asked the audience to reflect on what exactly is happening on campus right now, what civility and respect are, and what students, faculty and the administration can do to encourage better discussions and a better atmosphere on campus.

Many students talked about a sense of division and apathy they feel from others. Senior Kyle Jernigan, Editor-in-chief of The Point News, said, “There seems to be a correlation between incivility and apathy. There is a disconnect between the people who are involved on campus and the people who aren’t.”  Sophomore Joshua Santangelo said, “the population of people who care is dwindling…separate groups keep separate.”

On the issues of civility and respect, opinions ranged. While some felt that civility was not enough and ultimately St. Mary’s needs to strive for a fundamental sense of respect for every person, Assistant Professor of History Charles Musgrove talked about how civility “reminds us we have responsibilities to each other, no matter if we have differing views, or don’t like each other.”

In some cases where passions might stress relations, he said, “we’ll take the false kind of civility anyways.”

Students and faculty committed to trying to break down some of the barriers they see on campus just by being friendlier, which although a small thing, can lead to general “good feelings” on campus, as junior Marshall Betz described it. Anderson also suggested “reaching out to people that aren’t as involved and inviting people to leadership roles.”

Others suggested more all-campus events, putting the St. Mary’s Way on syllabi rather than, in Professor Emeritus of English Michael Glaser’s words, “burying it in the course catalog,” and having more orientation events related to respect and open discussion of hard issues.

At the conclusion of the event, Urgo said, “I’m gratified by the impatience with civility. We can do better than civility.” He also spoke to the idea that people at St. Mary’s came to this place to accomplish something purposeful and meaningful. He concluded by saying simply being nice to each other, while important, is not always enough to facilitate deeper connections, conversations and respect on campus.

 

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