History and Vision of Project Civility at Rutgers

In 2009, Dr. Kathleen Hull, the Director for the Byrne Family First Year Seminars and Dean Mark Schuster, Senior Dean of Students, had a conversation that would create the foundation for what became to be known as Project Civility at Rutgers. Based on the timing of events last fall 2010, many believed the two-year initiative was reactive and a response to specific events last fall. However, it was almost two years in the planning. Dr. Hull was teaching a Byrne Seminar called "Ain’t Misbehavin," using Dr. P.M. Forni’s book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. Dean Schuster oversaw the Dean of Students Office and the newly named Office of Student Conduct in 2009. He wanted the office to be called Student Conduct, Civility and Citizenship so it was more educational than punitive. Also in 2009, the Dean of Student Office wanted to have monthly educational programs that rotated on each of the five campuses focusing on issues of bullying, cyber bullying, bias and harassment. Fire Side Chats were emerging conversations that dealt with current events that were happening on many campuses across the country: The New York Times became a partner in this effort.

Rutgers Campus Deans, Deans of Students and other key administrators in Undergraduate Education met to implement a collaboration that launched Project Civility in September of 2010. P.M. Forni had done the most work to revitalize the term civility at John’s Hopkins. However, Dr. Forni has stated, that within two years, Rutgers University is probably the best experiment and example of institutional "buy in" of the concept of civility in the country. A flurry of conversations, symposia, debates, lectures, programs and fireside chats challenged Rutgers to ask the questions "What does civility mean today?" and "Is civility an umbrella term that might guide us for future directions and a concept that transcends diversity, multiculturalism, respect and social justice?"

For Rutgers, the answer to "civility" as a reinvented and reclaimed term has been a resounding YES! Project Civility has tested the hypothesis that a two-year, intentional community wide dialectic could encourage small acts of courtesy, compassion, and respect that would result, over time, in noticeable changes in our campus culture. The hope was to produce a campus culture very aware of civility, integrity, and a citizenry that respects all cultures and persons. The goal of year one was to produce a vocabulary and deep discussions and conversations, across the academy, on multiple aspects of civility and collective community responsibilities. These intentional and thoughtful communications, programs, panels and debates certainly have raised awareness and reflection. In fact, several colleges and universities have looked at Project Civility as a national model and Rutgers has become a catalyst in the national debate. Moreover, the entire Rutgers community has rallied and participated in exploring the complexities of social and cultural layers that impede and contribute to a culture and true commitment to civility. However, it is too soon to determine if Project Civility has had a long-term effect to reduce acts of hostile encounters, bias, bullying, violence and incivility. What has become evident is the fact that thousands of students, faculty, staff, parents and broader communities have thought twice, three times, and more about their actions. At Rutgers University, we have begun to explore more empathic and respectful ways to live and learn together.

Although Dr. Hull has left Rutgers, she remains passionate about this work, acting as a consultant to several institutions and agencies around issues of civility and respectful ways of living and learning in higher education. This past fall, the Dean of Students Office and Campus Deans presented several programs that focused on cultural sensitivities and cultures within cultures. Project Civility challenged the assumptions of stereotypes and horizontal hostility (within group dislike and misunderstandings). We met many heroes and heroines in the Rutgers community that are living role models of civility, especially the ultimate inspiration of our own Eric LeGrand.

Spring of 2012 will focus on community service, moving beyond the focus of self, and ending with an emphasis on environmental responsibility and global citizenship. We are very excited to announce Kenji Yoshino as our closing keynote speaker for Project Civility on April 16th. Professor Yoshino is the author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civility Rights. He did his undergraduate at Harvard, took a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and received his law degree from Yale Law School. Currently the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, Kenji Yoshino was also the Deputy Dean of Intellectual Life at Yale Law School from 1998 to 2008.

In the spirit of transformational leadership, it is our goal that student groups will take on the long-term community building and dialectics inspired by Project Civility.

You are invited to explore the programs on this website and look at the videos that document the Project Civility journey at Rutgers over the past two years. Thank you for sharing this discovery process of who we are, and who we might become, as an academic vision and cultural catalysts of change.

Project Civility has produced collaborations across all units at Rutgers University. However, this two-year initiative has primarily been supported by the Dean of Students Office in Student Affairs and the Campus Deans in Undergraduate Education.