In a Perfect World

In a Perfect World

By Amy Blakely

A group of African American high school students was visiting the UT Knoxville campus with their parents and guidance counselors a couple of semesters ago. The hope was that they’d be so impressed with the experience that some of these students would choose to attend UT Knoxville.

But then the unthinkable happened: From the window of a nearby residence hall, someone threw bananas at these visitors.

It was ugly. Embarrassing. Very un-Vol-like.

“The worst thing was, this intolerable incident came on the heels of a couple of other unfortunate events that also had racist overtones,” Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek says. “We had to put an end to this unacceptable behavior; we had to find a way to promote a culture of civility and community on our campus. We had to make UT Knoxville welcoming for all, hostile to none.”

Cheek immediately sent a memo to the campus community detailing the incident and made it clear that UT Knoxville wouldn’t tolerate actions that are biased, disrespectful, or unwelcoming to others.

He also appointed a Task Force on Civility and Community and charged them to come up with a plan to promote civility.

From incidents of road rage and bullying to the circulation of hurtful comments via social media, civility—or the lack of it—makes headlines almost daily. Colleges and universities have not been immune to these incidents. UT Knoxville is one of several universities to initiate a civility project to combat the big issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, as well as to promote cordial behavior in everyday interactions.

What Is Civility?

“Civility is treating others as you want to be treated. It’s the golden rule—something we are taught as young children,” Cheek says.

The Task Force on Civility and Community came up with 10 principles of civility. They are inclusivity, diversity, dialogue, collegiality, respect, knowledge, integrity, learning, awareness, and responsiveness. The Task Force also made recommendations about how to integrate the principles of civility into campus life.

One of the first projects was the creation of a video featuring members of the campus community to simply, but vividly, explain the idea of civility. View the video.

In April, Cheek sent the video to the campus community with an invitation to attend the annual International Festival for the formal rollout of the civility initiative.

That event included an original work of poetry by student Jessica Session, who had received a standing ovation for a previous poetry performance at the program celebrating 50 years of African American achievement at UT.

Banners with the principles of civility provided the backdrop as Cheek told the International Festival audience what had prompted the civility initiative. He explained that UT Knoxville will succeed in its goal of becoming a Top 25 public research university only if it is a welcoming and nurturing environment.

“We got tremendous feedback about the video and the rollout was extremely well attended,” Cheek says. “But this was only the start of what we intend to be a cultural change on our campus.

“Our challenge for administrators, faculty, and staff is to think about the principles of civility and find ways to illustrate them in and out of the classroom,” he says. “We are encouraging our students to think about the civility message when they book speakers, art, and cultural entertainment paid for by the student activity fee.”

What’s Next?

Look for civility and community to be the themes in most everything that happens at UT Knoxville in the 2011–12 academic year, for instance:

  • The civility and community theme was a component of freshman orientation during the summer.
  • Resident assistants in all residence halls have been trained on the principles of civility and have made civility a key part of their fall programming with residents.
  • Principles of civility will be central to UT Knoxville’s newly required First-Year Studies (FYS) 100 course, “The Volunteer Connection.” This is a one-hour pass-fail course that all freshmen must take.
  • Civility is a recurring theme of this year’s Life of the Mind book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  • The importance of civility and community was woven into this year’s Torch Night, a tradition that welcomes the new class to campus.
  • The Principles of Civility and Community are displayed prominently in residence halls and campus gathering spots.
  • Civility is a key learning objective in all programming that receives university-funded grants, such as those distributed through Ready for the World, the campus’s international and intercultural initiative.