Faculty Convocation, Spring 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018
Katie Murphy Amphitheatre

Good morning. I am delighted to welcome you back, as always. And as always, in the spring, I try, as much as possible, to limit my remarks so that we will have ample time to hear from our guest speaker and allow us to focus, as much as possible, on the subject of today’s convocation: civility.

But before I start, I hope you will join me in welcoming some of our trustees: John Pomerantz, Richard Anderman, and student trustee Sonne Bajwe.

I did want to tell you that we have added three new directors to our Foundation Board. They are Douglas Hand, a fashion lawyer who heads his own law firm; Megan Salt, who is the director of marketing and brand communications for Amazon Fashion; and Nadja Swarovski, who heads corporate communication and design services for Swarovski, her family business. This is in addition to the three we elected last semester. So the board has now expanded to 25 directors and it represents a broader scope of interests and industries. That, of course, will be of great help to our new Vice President for Advancement. And yes, we do have a new vice president for advancement. His name is Philips McCarty and he will start next week. He is unable to join us this morning because he is from California and the logistics of moving…well, you understand. He is a seasoned senior executive, strategist, and fundraiser. For seven years, he led a highly successful corporate fundraising effort for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. For the last 12 years, he ran his own consulting company with clients such as Heifer International, Brooks Brothers, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Make-a-Wish, and NBC Universal. We are delighted that he is joining us—we have lots for him to do.

So let me turn, now, to the topic at hand. You know, long before we ever took up the issue of civility—long, long before—a 16-year-old George Washington recorded what he called “110 rules of civility and decent behavior in company and conversation.” They spoke of respect and consideration of others; they spoke of kindness, as Robin has just done so eloquently. One rule, for instance, says: “Do not make fun of anything important to others.” Another, number 45, says: "When you must give advice or criticism, consider whether it should be given in public or private…and above all, be gentle.” Number 89 is: "Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust." And for the fashionistas among us, I offer Number 54: "Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you to see if you be well-decked." And finally, there are three that seem particularly relevant today, given the quality of our public discourse: "Think before you speak." "Let your conversation be without malice." And "In all causes of passion, let reason govern.” And finally, number 79: "Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof."

These words of wisdom from our first president actually long predate him: he got them from a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. So we are following a long and noble tradition in attempting to institutionalize and to inculcate in ourselves a pattern of behavior, based on common courtesy, that makes possible our ability to live together, to work together, to teach and learn together…to thrive together.

This is not a new topic for us either—certainly not for me: I have been singing the song of civility throughout my tenure here, raising it as a value, as a goal, at every opportunity. And even with so many of you at my side, it remains a work in progress. So I am thrilled—and grateful—that Robin and the Faculty Senate took it upon themselves to team with Academic Affairs and with our Chief Diversity Officer, Ron Milon, and with me, not just to devote today’s convocation to civility, but to make it a long-term project. And I’m delighted that the UCE is part of this bandwagon as well. On February 8, it is sponsoring a Town Hall on diversity and inclusion. I will be there; I hope all of you will be as well.

And as part of these efforts, the President’s Award for Faculty Excellence will focus this year on civility. The application form provides some ideas of what civil behavior might consist of, as well as a list of criteria, but it isn’t all encompassing. So if there is someone you wish to nominate for reasons that don’t appear on the form, please go ahead. The applications will be available shortly and when they are, I hope I am overwhelmed with nominees.

Our goal is to bring the concept of civility front and center for this community so that in practice—in our classrooms, our offices, our residence halls and throughout the campus—we all feel we are being treated with respect. The notion of civility—and its companions diversity and inclusion—is embedded in our strategic plan, in goals like “student centeredness” and in many of our initiatives. But we want civility embedded in the heart and consciousness of every one of us…every one of our colleagues, even those who are not here today…and every one of our students.

It should be simple to achieve, but it is not. After all, we live in a world that seems to grow more uncivil, more vulgar, and rancorous with every passing day. We started the academic year with the racial malevolence and violence in Charlottesville. Soon after, a crescendo of stories of workplace harassment, bullying, and sexual abuse emerged, dominating the airwaves, the soundtrack, the air we breathe: brave women, and some men, empowered, finally, to tell their stories and retrieve the dignity that had been stolen from them. The ongoing immigration battle—and the ugly rhetoric surrounding it from Washington and elsewhere— has raised the ante all the more. It is no surprise that every poll imaginable reports that the vast majority of Americans believe that, as a nation, our lack of civility has reached “crisis” level. Here’s the paradox: I would wager that many of those same Americans also perpetuated incivility—being rude, disrespectful, crude, insensitive, without even recognizing it in their own behavior. Here at FIT, our student surveys tell us—although there have been some improvements— they continue to often feel that we treat them with disrespect…or indifference. Of course, they treat each other rudely too and they are sometimes rude to us as well. And let’s be honest: we are not always as courteous to one another as we think we are. None of us—myself included—are perfect. But as educational role models, it is our obligation to attempt to be…to try always to extend to others respect and courtesy, even if you think they do not deserve it. Rule number 65: "Scoff at none although they give occasion."

Last fall, following Charlottesville, I sent a memo to the community emphasizing the importance of every day civility in our own environment—not just as an ideal, but as actual individual behavior, behavior that is personally owned and acknowledged. As Toni Morrison once said at an academic conference, “Like it or not, we are paradigms of our own values, advertisements of our own ethics” and then asked her colleagues: How do we treat each other…members of our own profession? How do we respond to professional cunning…to sly self-interest…to raw, ruthless ambition? What are we personally willing to sacrifice for the “public good?” Tough questions, but if answered honestly, they speak to our personal integrity to our personal levels of civility. “We teach values by having them,” she said. I would paraphrase that by saying we teach civility by practicing civility. And we all have a part to play.

It is somewhat comforting to know that rules of civility date back to ancient times. Human nature, after all, is unruly. Like Sisyphus, we are constantly having to push that rock up the mountainside. But I am feeling optimistic today, given the initiative of the Faculty Senate, the activities of our Diversity Council, the new and ongoing programs on civility and kindness for students sponsored by our enrollment management and student success division, and the groundswell of interest so many of you are exhibiting in this important work. For my part, I will continue to be your most enthusiastic cheerleader…to welcome your suggestions and ideas and, of course, to support programs and services that contribute to this effort.

So before I turn the podium over to our guest speaker, let me leave you with one more rule from the long list that young Mr. Washington recorded. It is, appropriately, rule number one: "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present."

It is with this simple but essential rule that I welcome you back.