A Push For Civility On Campus At UNL

A student walking on campus at UNL. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)
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January 23, 2019 - 6:45am

The University of Nebraska garnered attention during the last two years as a result of two separate controversial incidents centered on free speech. Brandon McDermott of NET News looks into how the administration, faculty and students are responding.

Nebraska’s main campus is busy with students bustling from one class to another. Like most major college campuses across this country, there are students from all over the world. They are forming ideas and learning skills that will shape the rest of their lives.

Programs and projects happening on campus at UNL that deal with civility and discourse as well as the political divide.

Tools of Civility

These tools were created by a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University and have been implemented by city officials in Duluth, Minnesota. These tools were given to graphics students at UNL to design graphics which were then given to a group of PR students who crafted campaigns which will be shown around campus.
Students may be able to make a button or a shirt with some of these tools of civility on them.

Elect To Serve

A one-credit pop-up course, designed to prepare UNL students to run for elected office or to become involved in the process. Students work with elected officials and campaign staffers to learn the ins and outs of running for political office. Then students are split up into groups based on their political ideologies. By the end of the week, each group has to pick a candidate to run and a platform for them to run on.


Students are paired with other students who are on the opposite side of the political aisle. Discussion is then based on their differences and understanding of each other’s points of view.

Dish It Up

An interactive weekly conversation among students covering a myriad of topics from politics, sports, pop culture, music, entertainment and current events.

Husker Dialogues

Introduces first-year students to the importance of dialogue at UNL about diversity and inclusion issues through pushing conversations with one another. Models ways to participate in respectful dialogues even when we disagree, while articulating the university’s commitment to inclusion for academic excellence.

Jerry Renaud and Rick Alloway's podcast

The two UNL broadcasting professors have aired five episodes of their podcast on KRNU, the student radio station at UNL. They also post them on Youtube. Rick Alloway gives insight on the podcast:

“The first episode focused more on claims of bias in reporting. But for this year, given the perfect storm of #MeToo, social media outrage (and the apparent ease with which it can be fomented and manipulated), white supremacy vs. Antifa, "Fake News" and on and on, we thought we should focus efforts for this academic year on crumbling civility in our conversations. And, more importantly, to seek solutions. Hopefully, there are some.”

"I don't think though we've had a dramatic increase in shouting matches in classes or anything along that line," said Rick Alloway, the general manager of KRNU, the university's student-run radio station. "I think people are still generally civil towards each other."

Alloway, who is also an associate professor of broadcasting at the school, is referring to an incident from 2017. A lecturer was fired for making an inappropriate gesture toward a student and calling her “a neo-fascist.” The student was recruiting for a conservative group on campus at the time. Since then, UNL was censured by the American Association of University Professors for what the AAUP called “violating academic freedom.” UNL administration have said the AAUP has gotten it all wrong. When it comes to campus life at UNL, Alloway said some people tend to get it wrong.

"As is often the case, we're hearing a lot of data from people who just know exactly what's happening on campus who've never been within a hundred miles of the campus – but they know – because they read it somewhere," Alloway said.

Alloway said it’s not always easy understanding each other – communicating – hearing ideas that are different than your own. Data backs that up. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s latest annual freshman survey in 2016, students across the country were more politically divided than ever before. The survey was responded to by more than 137,000 students. In the survey, several indicators dropped from 2015-2016 including students’ ability to have their views challenged (-4 percent) and their ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues (-7.2 percent).

Jerry Renaud, UNL journalism professor, who teams up with Alloway on a podcast about civil discourse, said we can’t forget the importance of open dialogue.

"I mean it’s one of the things that the university is all about," Renaud said. "It's not always about making the students feel comfortable, or the faculty to be comfortable. There should be some uncomfortable conversations that take place, it is a place of learning."

Renaud said those conversations must happen with both sides remaining civil. There are several programs and initiatives already happening on campus to make sure that happens. One of these is the implementation of the program called “Tools of Civility.” It was first started in Duluth, Minnesota by city officials as part of the Speak Your Peace project.

Linda Major, assistant to the vice chancellor of student affairs at UNL, said the “Tools of Civility” program is about focusing on how we conduct ourselves.

"It's not a campaign to end disagreements, it's about how we treat one another as we're having the conversation," Major said.

As part of the campaign, 32 graphic design students at UNL created designs promoting civility which were then worked into PR campaigns by other students. The graphic design and PR students talked through each piece in a way that allowed introspection.

Stacy Asher is an associate professor of art at UNL. She worked with the graphic design students. She said students want to delve deeper when it comes to civility.

"How can we get beyond these stereotypical ideas of what peace looks like through a peace symbol or through doves and sunsets?" Asher said.

This project between graphic design and PR students was helpful, she said.

"I think that conversation building that happened within the classroom with my students in the process of designing these solutions was just as valuable as the designed artifact," Asher said.

Students felt a sense of pride, Asher said, when they completed their projects.

"Putting those brands and logos and symbols into an environment to produce interactions, interactivity (and) experiences for people to come together and have dialogue and conversation," Asher said.

These campaigns will be pushed out over campus through social media, campus-wide emails and possibly t-shirts and buttons over the coming years. Nebraska’s student government created another project called Converge. After a 25-question quiz, students from opposite sides of the political aisle are paired together and talk politics. Major said this will be invaluable for future generations of students.

One example of buttons created by UNL students from the "Tools of Civility" program. (Photo courtesy of Stacy Asher)

"So we think it has some real potential to be just a visual reminder of how we want to treat one another and that's why I think it's such a nice compliment to converge as well as other programs across campus," Major said.

Major says these events together with other programs happening on UNL’s campus showcase an attempt to head off any perceived unfriendliness. But it’s not the only campus effort to bridge the political divide.

Hunter Traynor, president of the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, says Converge creates a place where students can get to the bottom of why they disagree.

"That's what I think folks need to approach political differences with," Traynor said. "At the bedrock what we believe – where does it differ? What experiences have informed it and where from that can we find some shared understanding?"

Traynor said in one of the meetings, which are only open to students, a rural conservative student spoke up to voice concern when he felt his beliefs were misunderstood. Traynor explains by the time the student was done, what’s supposed to happen on college campuses happened...people learned something.

"And it was like this kind of moment of reckoning I think for students in the group to say, 'Wow, how am I being irresponsible in my assumptions about other people?' But that's what a college campus is for," Traynor said.

Traynor said on campus at UNL, things are a lot better than people would assume.

"The learners and leaders of tomorrow are still learning, they're still discussing and I think we're still eager to hear what each other have to say," Traynor said.

Amy Goodburn is the senior associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate education at UNL. She said it’s hard to demonize someone when you’re trying to understand their experiences.

Students discuss creating graphics from the "Tools of Civility" program. (Photo courtesy of Stacy Asher)

"If we really want to promote this lifelong learning experience, we have to continue to develop opportunities for our students to engage with  one another in productive and respectful ways," Goodburn said.

But not every Husker is happy with the state of politics on campus.

In another politically-charged incident, a self-avowed white supremacist student circulated videos including what some dubbed “hate-speech” while also saying he “wanted to be violent.” The university was criticized by many for not immediately removing the student from campus. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green wrote:

"The student’s viewpoint — however hateful and intolerant it is — is also protected by the First Amendment. That is the law, even if we disagree.”

Kevin Reese, program coordinator at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural center at UNL, says people on campus were very angry – especially people of color – when Nebraska didn’t immediately expel a “white nationalist.” Reese said some are still fearful because the student is still on campus.

"Walking to class and walking from class in fear thinking something may happen because they're part of this population," Reese said.

Those in Reese’s office talked with students about the incident after the videos were released, working through issues of anxiety and angst. He said many people off campus don't have a full view of what's going on.

"But I think it is as bad as people think it is, sometimes," Reese said. "For those who don't have the experience to see what students are feeling and what students are experiencing on the college campus."

However, Reese said he is excited for what the future holds. Nebraska recently hired its first vice-chancellor for diversity and inclusion, Marco Barker. He comes to Nebraska from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Kevin Reese said the hire is a good step in the right direction for Nebraska and makes him proud to call Nebraska his home.



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