Supporting Civility

By: Jeremy Teitelbaum

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and

A couple of weeks ago, President Herbst announced the publication of a revised code of conduct for the university, calling our attention to newly adopted civility standards. Under the civility heading, the code states that “all members of the University community have a responsibility to treat each other with consideration and respect.”  More significant from my point of view, though, is the statement that “Managers and supervisors have an elevated responsibility to demonstrate these behaviors and support their expression in the workplace.”

After all, it’s not really asking very much to require all of us to treat each other with “consideration and respect.” Although, in my younger days, I was a little too quick to resort to nasty sarcasm with people I disagreed with, I’ve since mellowed and (mostly) I practice self-control.

The requirement to support civil behavior in the workplace is much harder to carry out. Nothing involving interactions among people is ever straightforward, and the university leadership should not be policing day-to-day interactions among colleagues. At the same time, even in situations where people are clearly out of line, it’s all too easy to look the other way rather than confront them about their bad behavior. And, of course, changing some people’s  behavior for the better can be nearly impossible.

My biggest concern, though, is that because of  my position in a hierarchy, and the privileges I enjoy, I never find out about problems in the first place.

You see, my life as a dean is pretty nice.  Talented staff people handle all kinds of routine things — like paperwork — that used to eat up my time when I was a faculty member. When I show up at a lecture or other event, people tell me how glad they are to see me. They compliment any remarks I make, no matter how perfunctory.  When I provide funding for a piece of equipment, or for an adjunct instructor, or some other project, the recipient thanks me for my support.  Often, even when I turn down a request, I get thanked just for considering it!

The bottom line is that people all around me are constantly treating me with “consideration and respect.”   It would be all too easy for me to conclude that because my situation is so pleasant, so is everyone else’s.

But CLAS is a very big organization, and my position is unique.  It would be naive — and irresponsible — for me to generalize from my experience to that of others.  What makes the obligation to support civility weigh on me is the fact that, if I’m going to “support” consideration and respect across the college,  I need to reach out beyond my zone of comfort.  I need to talk to people — lots of people — listen to what they have to say, and try to piece together as much of the true state of affairs as I can. Of particular importance is the fact that I need to account for the fact that people will be reluctant to volunteer unpleasant information to me.

What weighs most heavily, though, is the fact that I am accountable not only for my own behavior, but ultimately for the behavior of everyone in the college who holds a position of authority — whether formal authority derived from a position in the hierarchy, or informal authority like that wielded by every faculty member who teaches, interacts with staff, or advises graduate students. Everyone in such a position — every faculty member and every senior staff person, everyone who wields some kind of power — faces some form of the difficulties that I face in finding out what’s really going on around them. They, too, need to reach out, to listen to what’s going on around them, and to act where necessary to uphold “consideration and respect” among members of the university community.

To be honest, this accountability is the scariest part of my job. I would rather deal with any number of budget crises than try to intervene in situations where “consideration and respect” seem to have broken down.  Still, I believe that nothing promotes more cynicism, nothing undermines productivity more quickly, nothing undermines recruitment and retention of talented people more thoroughly than a lack of trust by the students, staff, and faculty of the university in the commitment of its leadership to a decent working environment. So even though budgetary problems are more pleasant to deal with than flawed personal interactions, the responsibility of those in power to promote a favorable workplace climate is at the foundation of the university’s success.  I hope we can live up to the responsibility.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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