Civility and the research university

In a global economy that runs on knowledge and networks, research universities occupy a unique, keystone position. Former NYU president John Sexton outlined this role in a 2005  speech, “Dogmatism and Complexity: Civil Discourse and the Research University”. Sexton points out that in a political economy that is increasingly driven by dogmatism, research universities can point us in a new, more promising direction. They can reinvigorate our commitment to the public discourse that drives our democracy forward.

At the Lab, we place civility in a pre-eminent position in our work. The reason is straightforward. In a democracy, civility is essential for complex, collective thinking. Civility and collaboration power prosperity. Without it, we descend into unproductive dogmatism, as Sexton notes.

In our workshops, we frequently point out  that in May, 1787, when our founders convened in Philadelphia to write our constitution, they first passed rules of civility to govern their debates. These simple rules established the bounds for their debate. They created a foundation of mutual respect that enabled the delegates to confront white hot issues. In a little over four months, they produced a document that established a republic on a scale never before seen. Carol Berkin, in her book, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, has highlighted the role civility played in these complex constitutional debates.

We need rules of civility, because with out them, we cannot do the complex thinking that our democracy requires.