Brenna Humphries, a junior black student at Elon University, was walking on campus one evening in September 2011 when she was forced to redirect her path to avoid a car that was speeding towards her. As the vehicle flew by, a white male shouted a racial slur out of the window.
Three days later, a similar incident happened to another black Elon student who was walking on campus.
Humphries spoke out about her incident, drawing the attention of Elon administration, faculty, staff and students to discrimination on campus.
“Most victims, of all harassments, don’t want to be in the camera,” said Leon Williams, director of Elon’s multicultural center. “[They] don’t want their names known. Most say, ‘I want you to handle it and deal with it.’ But Brenna, she was willing to talk about it. She was willing to stand in front of people and say, ‘I am a victim. It was me. They called me ‘x,’ and I want to talk to those guys. I want to have a public conversation about it.’”
What is Civility?
Civility, as defined by the Institute for Civility in Government (ICG), is, “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Civility includes politeness, self-awareness and respect, ICG says. Further, it involves open-minded conversations with those who differ from us.
Colleges and universities across the country are experiencing a lack in civil attitudes among students. School administrators face situations involving racial slurs, sexual-orientation biases and religious intolerances. Within the past two years, the media have prominently covered the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and the Yale University fraternity pledges who chanted sexually-offensive slogans while marching.
Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, committed suicide in September 2010 after discovering his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly videotaped and live-streamed his romantic encounter with another male in his dorm room. In March 2012, Ravi was found guilty on 15 counts, including lying to investigators, trying to influence a witness and tampering with evidence, according to an article published in the New York Times. Sentencing will take place May 21.
One month later after Clementi’s death, Yale University’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity had pledges march through campus shouting chants such as, “No means yes, yes means anal” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I f— dead women,” according to Yale’s student newspaper, the Yale Daily News. As a result of this, 16 Yale students and alumni filed complaints with the Department of Education, claiming the university violated Title IX, which bans colleges from discriminating on the basis of gender. Yale was put under investigation by the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and investigations continue.
As a whole, Generation Me, those born between the years of 1982 and 1999, is viewed as a tolerant generation. Seventy percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 now support gay marriage in comparison to the nearly 40 percent of those over the age of 55 who oppose it, according to a recent Gallup poll. So why are millennials impolite if they are accepting of others’ differences?
Higher education institutions are beginning to study these questions. Through training, discussion forums and policy changes, universities are taking a stand against discriminatory arrogances and incivility.
Elon University, Elon, NC
As a result of Humphries’ testimony, questions concerning the safety of students, faculty and staff surfaced at Elon. In addressing these questions, Elon administrators conducted a campus-wide forum where discussions ensued over the atmosphere of Elon’s campus, Williams said.
“We all came together to hear from Brenna, and then we moved the discussion along about, ‘What is this climate really like?’ ‘Are students safe?’ ‘Are we promoting and nurturing climate that we aspire to create and generate for students in what we advertise,’” he said.
As possible solutions for these types of civility issues were voiced, Brooke Barnett, senior fellow and advisor to the president, introduced a “Not On Our Campus” slogan, which sought to represent Elon’s policy of acceptance. Though the phrase seemed positive, some faculty and staff members questioned its effectiveness.
Individuals feared that because Elon did not have a procedure in place to support the slogan, the community would not take its meaning seriously.
“Sometimes, when you draw attention to things that don’t have the systemic support behind them, you perpetuate hate, evilness and wickedness because the aggressors figure out and learn the law,” Williams said. “[Issues] continue to grow because some students know, ‘There’s nothing you can do with me.’”
However, the majority of the forum supported the campaign, and administrators immediately began broadcasting its message throughout the university.
Elon began formulating a new bias-response protocol, which would create a more succinct system for individuals who experienced bias discrimination and harassment of any kind to follow. Elizabeth Nelson, associate director for health promotions and coordinator for inter-personal relations and community wellbeing, serves as the director of the protocol. She said once the system is completely implemented next fall, it will help Elon better understand incivility and discriminatory trends by tracking reported data, formulating calculations and recognizing progression.
“We can be intentional in the kinds of diversity programming we do in the future, Nelson said. “We can say, ‘OK, so we had 40 of these things happen in this one school year and then we did this activity or we did this education or we changed this policy, and that number got cut in half.’”
The bias-response protocol will offer three options for reporting an occurrence: An online report form that is smartphone-friendly, a telephone hotline that will connect individuals with immediate responders and a list of human resources available on the web that victims can contact.
Elon has not set an official launch date, Nelson said, but the procedure itself is ready for use.
“It is happening quickly,” she said. “The policies are already changed, so if someone were to have an issue, then they would get the benefit of a new and better policy—a lot of schools take years to develop the system, and we’ve done it in a matter of months, so we’re kind of building as we go.”
To promote sexual equality, Elon established an LGBTQIA Office. The coordinator, Kirstin Ringelberg, helps to mentor Elon’s SPECTRUM program, a queer-straight student alliance group, among other responsibilities.
“I think one of the most important things I’ve done is start to make what has been an invisible population more visible,” she said. “Not just literally – like people who come to events that are geared towards particular issues might be wrongly interpreted sometimes as being LGBTQIA—but also, putting this conversation on the table as something that’s worth talking about.”
Ross Wade, creator of the queErLON blog, said the online forum was initiated to serve as an educational outlet so Elon students, faculty and staff could read about Elon’s LGBTQIA members’ testimonies.
“Before folks can understand a movement or a cause, they need to understand and care about the people connected to that cause,” Wade said.
He said he thought a blog, which has been positively received, would provide an accessible avenue for community members to share their stories.
“I think the best thing that has happened are the conversations that have started,” he said. “I’ve had several talks with faculty and staff about LGBTQIA issues on campus, their ideas to make the campus more inclusive, and their feelings about social change. I also received quite a few emails from students after the launch of the blog asking me to define terms like ‘trans’ or ‘ally.’ Lots of learning has come from this blog, and that is very exciting.”
Ringelberg said by encouraging a more LGBTQIA-friendly environment on campus, though, she noticed Elon’s consistent effort to be polite.
“I don’t think politeness is bad, but I do think not being honest about the real problems that we face and the actual ways we think is problematic,” she said. “It seems to be worse at Elon than any other place I’ve been. It’s not necessarily because Elon is a bad place, but I think there’s just a much higher premium placed here on never making anyone feel uncomfortable, and you can’t learn unless you’re uncomfortable.”
Change comes from curiosity, conversation and understanding, Ringelberg said, but because Elon’s community is afraid to ask certain questions, she believes individuals unknowingly fail to overcome their preexisting beliefs or to correct their offensive tendencies.
“They don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said. “They ask, ‘I hurt your feelings when I say lifestyle?’ like you picked out your curtains and your sexuality. Maybe the empathy piece is what’s missing—getting the bigger ideal in the daily behavior.”
A 1999 research study completed by Sara Konrath and her colleagues analyzed more than 14,000 college students to prove millennials lack feelings of empathy, especially in comparison to those from previous generations.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said in an article, “Generation Me on Trial,” that despite millennials’ tolerant attitudes, their naive mentalities are common roots for civility issues.
“Tolerance and equality are among Generation Me’s greatest strengths and should continue to be celebrated,” she said. “But sometimes, equality is not enough. For true peace and compassion, we need a healthy dose of empathy. It’s not enough to realize that someone else is equal—we have to think about what it’s really like to be him or her.”