Colleges Have a Responsibility to Teach Civility, Responsibility and Respect

Co-Authored by Tom Kruczek

Negative publicity has been swirling around many college campuses because of the misbehavior of their students. The traditional college and university template of a community of scholars learning, exploring, and studying in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance has been turned on-end with recent incidents of disrespect, incivility, callous indifference and even violence.

The tragic case of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza is a haunting example of unthinkable behavior on a college campus. Grand jury indictments for involuntary manslaughter against 18 students at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity reveal how Piazza died after a night of binge drinking. According to news reports, the drinking rampage was part of a fraternity hazing ritual. “Running the Gauntlet,” as it was called, required freshman pledges to drink repeatedly all night long.

After his try at “the gauntlet,” Piazza fell 15 feet onto his head and then fell repeatedly until he lost consciousness, and became “cold to the touch.” Not one student came to his aid, except to place a stack of books under his head so that he wouldn’t roll over into his own vomit. Finally, twelve hours later, one student finally called 911 for help. Sadly, too late for Timothy.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report stated that, “The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”

It is time for colleges and universities to get serious about teaching character and instituting training that reinforces core values such as respect, caring, kindness, responsibility, and concern for the greater good. Aside from the current trend among colleges to require reading a compelling book on a trendy topic as part of an orientation or freshman seminar, most schools are silent on moral values.

There are a few colleges that buck this trend—several are faith-based schools. At Notre Dame College in Ohio, for example, students are repeatedly exposed to campus ministries, diverse dialogue sessions, and the teaching of emotional intelligence. Students take part in service learning projects throughout the community. The inclusiveness of the campus is enhanced by the absence of fraternities or sororities, and students consider themselves rather to be part of the “Notre Dame College Family.” Compassion, caring, and community are emphasized and expected.

Notre Dame College takes seriously its responsibility for the safety of students and through social-emotional learning, ensures their exposure to positive values. These values are reinforced and modeled by faculty and staff. The College’s goal is to graduate good men and good women who will effect positive change in the world. Values, civility, responsibility and respect are not dirty words that spurn academic independence, exploration, and scholarship. They are the building-blocks of grounded, emotionally-intelligent and ethical leaders of tomorrow—essential outcomes of a good college education.

Many college professors believe that, as Robert Reich recently said, “One of the purposes of a university education is to be provoked. We want to have provocative views that some people find offensive.” That’s all well and good in theory, but it is not sufficient for today’s world of conflict and intolerance.

We believe that colleges and universities can and should teach civility and respect by holding dialogue sessions that demonstrate how people who disagree can still have a thoughtful conversation. This is a learned and totally trainable skill that is critical to the future of politics, society and the workplace – and one that our country sorely needs. Why not start in college, tamping down current and future incivility instead of fueling it or leaving it to chance?

Colleges can and should have training for responsibility and ethics. Colleges can and should expose their students to tools, techniques and values that encourage safety, empathy, and responsibility. A college education that teaches these values is the kind of education that is desperately needed in today’s world. Our communities, country, world – and our students –deserve no less.

Tom Kruczek is president of Notre Dame College of Ohio, www.notredamecollege.edu. Stuart Muszynski is founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. www.purpleamerica.us

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