The View from T-Hall

Building a Civil Community

I am writing this on the cusp of a new year, between semesters, when the campus is quiet and there is time to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the new. The semester break provides opportunity to rest, renew and spend time with our families and friends. In mid-January, the learning and living experience of our students resumes as the university community gears up for second semester.

This year in particular, the semester break also marks a crossroads--indeed, it is a crossroads for all of us in higher education. This is the time when we must choose between collectively and consciously seeking a more civil community, or continuing on a path of increasingly uncivil behavior, where some students disregard the norms that promote the greater good of the university and its surrounding towns.

In this issue of the University of New Hampshire Magazine, you will read a wonderful story about student leadership in response to a pressing challenge to our community. The Student Summit for Responsible Celebrations was organized in response to a disturbing and growing trend of celebratory violence at UNH and on college campuses across the United States.

We live and relate to a series of communities throughout our lives. We grow up and are nurtured in our families and in hometown communities; we learn and mature in our grade school and high school experiences. When we leave for college, we move into greater independence from those communities, and while we know and appreciate all the values we have learned, we are confronted with new challenges we need to overcome and new choices we need to make. The value of our communities growing up will help inform us.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines community as "a body of people living in the same place under the same laws." This definition is important to remember in our ongoing discussions about nurturing a civil community in Durham and the state.

Throughout the centuries, people have struggled to define, and strengthen, the notion of a good and strong community: a place where individuals prosper not only economically, but socially and spiritually, where there is mutual respect, a unified sense of the public good, respect for the past and a passionate and committed vision for the future. The key phrase here is the "unified sense of the public good." Instilling this knowledge and understanding in our students is as critical a part of their education as their academic pursuits, and it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure this knowledge is clearly imparted.

Admirably, many students want this shift to a more civil community and are willing to work toward it. Our own student summit was the first student-led meeting to address the issue. At Northwestern University, students and administrators drafted a new policy on civility to be included in the student handbook. At one of the State University of New York campuses, student leaders endorsed a poster campaign that specified classroom behavior guidelines. A return to civility is not only required for large party gatherings; it also is needed in classrooms. Some 79 percent of University of Arizona students identified cell phones and beepers as the biggest classroom distraction they suffer. As one student wrote in an op-ed for a college paper in Oklahoma, "You aren't significant enough to disturb an entire class to find out what time the party starts." As we all may remember from our own undergraduate days, it is easier to think these thoughts than to express them openly to our peers. But it precisely this kind of courage, this kind of leadership, that will make the difference.

In our desire for a more civil community, we are not talking about nostalgia for a quieter time from our past when life appeared simpler, when answers seemed easier. It's what Robert Bellah and his colleagues described in The Good Society when they wrote, "...the good society emerges not as an idealistic project but as the long-term practical necessity of the new era." That is how our pursuit of a civil community needs to be embraced by all members of our UNH community--students, faculty and staff, the citizens of Durham and alumni--anyone who cares about the university and how it contributes to the greater good.

I am optimistic that we are working successfully toward a more civil community, a goal that is indeed a "long-term practical necessity." Through the hard work and commitment of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and neighbors in Durham, we will succeed in achieving a social setting in which we can all thrive and prosper.

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