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In Wake of Tragedy, New Emphasis on Civility

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — On Sept. 29, the day police recovered the body of a Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after fellow students allegedly used a webcam to spy on him in a gay encounter, the school initiated a major dialogue on civility.

That night, Rutgers hosted the first of many events as part of its Project Civility, a public discussion led by P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct and director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Dr. Kathleen Hull, director of the Byrne Family First-Year Seminar Program at Rutgers, and Mark Schuster, senior dean of students, conceived Project Civility months earlier. Days before news of the suicide broke, they announced a two-year initiative to engage the campus of about 40,000 students in a discussion intended “to cultivate an environment of courtesy and compassion through thoughtful communication and interaction.” The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Office of the Dean of Students co-sponsor the program.

The news that Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist from Ridgewood, N.J., might have been driven to his death by the embarrassment he suffered from cyberbullying thrust the issue of civility into national headlines. Two of Clementi’s dormmates reportedly used a hidden camera to record him with a male companion in his room, outed him on the Internet, tweeted about it, bragged of plans to cybercast his next intimate encounter and invited others in cyberspace to watch it.

The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office has charged two students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, with invasion of privacy and transmitting a sexual encounter over the Internet. Their lawyers have announced that the two have since withdrawn from the university. A Rutgers spokeswoman would not confirm whether disciplinary actions were pending, citing federal privacy laws.

Hull, the project co-director who taught a popular elective course on civility last year to first-year students, says Clementi’s suicide came up in the Project Civility sessions.

“It is not far from people’s minds,” she says. “Even if people aren’t talking about it, it’s right there.”

Hull says the tragic suicide resulted in “better and deeper coverage than we would have had” from campus and outside media and in more faculty involvement.

“I think there is a greater concern for the gravity and importance of civility in the community as a result of this juxtaposition of these events,” she says.

However, Hull says the organizers had not changed the program since Clementi’s death.

“I would have a concern if Project Civility was taken over by one particular incident or one particular problem of young people living together and having respect for each other, because there are so many broad issues that we are interested in exploring,” she says.

Sattik Deb, the project manager for Project Civility, says the Clementi case “really served to bring a lot of people on board and it really made the concept of civility into something that people were talking about in a manner it hadn’t been talked about before.”

Scott Lazes, a senior journalism major with a minor in cinematic studies, has produced commercials and documentaries for the project, including one that addresses the notion that anonymity allows people to do things they would not do openly.

“We are much more at ease saying things when we know that our physical identities are not attached to the words we are saying” he says. People “go online and write all sorts of really hateful comments.”

At a discussion on “Uncivil Gadgets” on Nov. 3, one panelist, Dr. Michael N. Geselowitz, who studies the history and social relations of technology, said “rules of engagement” are a necessary “lubricant” to human interaction in a complex society. These courtesies or manners are learned from parents and society, but the rules change over time. Now, he says, “The rules of the game are changing more rapidly than we can keep up with.”

Nancy Kranich, a special-projects librarian and lecturer in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers, warns about threats to privacy posed by the omnipresence of hidden cameras.

“We are developing a culture of video voyeurism, and when we go and place these images and snippets on the Internet, it transforms what used to be mere gossip into a widespread and permanent stain on our reputation,” she says.

Neil P. Kypers, editor of the campus newspaper, the Daily Targum, says the treatment of Clementi demonstrated “a lack of understanding of how the Internet plays a role in society and how you should act civilly through it.”

Kypers, a senior majoring in political science, says young people “are used to turning to Facebook, Twitter and blogs and using them as an outlet for everything, unfiltered: ‘This is my life. This is everything that is going on. This is where I am going to put it for everyone to see.’”

What they often fail to consider, he adds, is the effect of these disclosures on the lives of people with whom they interact.

Next semester, events will focus on civility in relation to intercultural relationships, gender, the environment and sportsmanship.

Hull says she hopes students eventually will share what they have learned with other schools as well as with libraries and museums. The co-director says she has received phone calls and e-mails from teachers, advisers and administrators nationwide saying, ‘We want to have something like Project Civility. Can you help us?’” Hull says project leaders hope to develop resources to share with other schools.

Asked whether he had seen any signs of changes in behavior on campus as a result of the project, Project Civility project manager Deb says, “One change we have noticed is that the vocabulary of civility has been much more prevalent. … I consider this not so much an end product but a beginning of a much bigger discussion.”

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