Because divisive national political rhetoric has spilled over into higher education, Wake Technical Community College launched the Campus Civility Project: Emotionally Intelligent Conversations in 2017. This project was part of a Campus Compact Fund for Positive Engagement mini-grant, focusing on improving civil discourse among Wake Tech students, faculty, and staff. Creating an environment of civility and respect “is a college-wide responsibility including the words and actions of administrators, faculty, staff, and students. It must be ongoing and interactive” (Popovics, 2014). To reach all areas, levels, and members of the college, the Campus Civility Project was a collaborative effort led by a provost, dean, department head, and faculty member. Through emotional intelligence training, online professional development, assimilation in course curriculum, student promotional video creation, and tailoring training to specialized groups, the Campus Civility Project has successfully reached hundreds of administrators, faculty, staff, and students in less than two years.
To first establish a strong foundation of knowledge as project leads, we developed our awareness and comprehension of elements of civil discourse by each completing and ultimately becoming certified in administering the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i 2.0). The EQ-i 2.0 “is the world’s leading assessment tool used for assessing emotional and social intelligence”; upon completion, users receive a report outlining their scores in “15 competencies, grouped into five composite areas: Self-Perception, Self-Expression, Interpersonal, Decision Making and Stress Management” (EITC, 2019). Through the guidance of a coach and a two-day comprehensive workshop, we used the data and feedback from our individual reports to identify, understand, develop, and refine our distinctive strengths and weaknesses in emotional and social intelligence. By the end of our training, we acquired a thorough understanding of the strengths each team lead could bring to the various components of our project, allowing for thoughtful, productive collaboration.
The second phase of the Campus Civility Project was the creation of a training course designed to increase a core group of Wake Tech stakeholders’ ability to demonstrate and facilitate emotionally intelligent conversations. This goal was based on research providing evidence of the positive correlation between increased emotional intelligence and better social relationships (Schutte, Malouff, & Thorsteinsson, 2013). Initially, we conceived of this training as several in-person training sessions for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. As the team began to build the training course, however, we realized that an online format would allow us to reach a greater number of stakeholders. As a result, we decided to create an online course in our learning management system (LMS) with modules for faculty and staff. These modules can also be copied directly into instructors’ course shells through our LMS and thus delivered virtually to students. Considering the core elements of emotional intelligence that we learned during the EQ-i 2.0 certification program, the team decided to focus on two main areas of emotional intelligence—assertiveness and empathy—as the foundation of the lessons created for the online course. We chose these two skills because they are necessary for individuals in civil conversations to understand others (empathy) and make themselves understood (assertiveness). The online course consisted of two lessons, one on each skill, with instructional slides, videos, quizzes, and discussion boards in each lesson. We designed course materials to appeal to a wide audience. Examples include a Brené Brown video on empathy (The RSA, 2013) and a Mayo Clinic article on assertiveness (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). We initially shared the online course with instructors in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Division at Wake Tech and eventually with faculty, staff, and students throughout the college. More than 90 faculty and staff members have enrolled in the online course, and the online modules have reached over 500 students.
In addition to the online course, the team integrated the training modules into seated courses. During this training, students completed the coursework and then engaged in an application activity. Instructors paired students with opposing views on a topic and directed them to discuss the topic using civil conversation techniques. The students were given a list of sentence starters to help them demonstrate empathy and assertiveness during these conversations across difference. Students who participated in this activity were asked to reflect on their experiences. Representative student comments included the following: “Society should focus less on who is wrong versus who is right. We should be more focused on listening where the other person is coming from and trying to find the best solution for everyone” and “Being able to experience and listen to someone else’s viewpoints made me feel and be more accepting.”
From the initial group of student participants, we recruited volunteers with divergent beliefs about current political and social issues to participate in videotaped dialogues during February of 2018. Using skills developed during the emotional intelligence training, they discussed their perspectives on controversial issues with each other and demonstrated how to respond to differences in a civil and productive manner. We combined excerpts from these sessions into a short video during April 2018 (Wake Tech Instructional, 2018). We shared this video in classrooms across our campuses, in online classes including the Campus Civility Project course, and on our college website. In addition, we shared the video with the national Campus Compact organization as part of the final Fund for Positive Engagement report.
After one year of implementation, popularity surrounding the Campus Civility Project increased, resulting in faculty and staff across the college reaching out for more information about and inclusion in the online training. Also, Wake Tech’s Office of the Registrar specifically requested in-person, specialized civility training in handling student and parent complaints and invited us to lead a customized, two-hour session at their office’s spring professional development retreat. In preparation for the seated session, we asked that the attendees complete the two-hour online training course. Using their responses to the reflection questions on the course shell, we then designed the seated session as a customized extension of the material in the online course, complete with relevant student and parent scenarios for contemplation and group discussion. We gave participants the opportunity to openly share their concerns, frustrations, and potential techniques in handling these matters. Participants left with tools and strategies to promote civil discourse for emotionally intelligent communication with parents, students, and one another.
The Campus Civility Project has successfully helped numerous administrators, faculty, staff, and students both in and outside of Wake Tech. In fact, as a result of the Campus Civility Project, almost 90 percent of Wake Tech participants report feeling more confident about engaging in civil conversation with people who hold opposing views. Eager to spread this confidence and increase awareness regarding the importance of campus civility, we have shared our project with other community colleges and four-year colleges and universities at local and national conferences. During these presentations, we provide participants with strategies, resources, and tools, as well as our contact information for informal consulting and help with troubleshooting, so that they may successfully tailor and implement this initiative at their respective institutions. We firmly agree that “colleges cannot exist, untainted, in a context of incivility, violence, and bigotry” (Morris, 2016) and hope other institutions of higher education will adopt their own campus civility projects to promote thoughtful, productive, and emotionally intelligent discourse.
EITC. (2019). What is the EQ-i 2.0? Retrieved from https://www.eitrainingcompany.com/eq-i
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, May 9). Being assertive: Reduce stress, communicate better. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/assertive/art-20044644
Morris, L. V. (2016). Collective action for civil discourse. Innovative Higher Education, 41(5), 361–363. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-016-9376-5
Popovics, J. A. (2014). Civility on community college campuses: A shared responsibility. College Student Journal, 48(1), 130–132.
The RSA. (2013, December 10). Brené Brown on empathy [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., & Thorsteinsson, E. B. (2013). Increasing emotional intelligence through training: Current status and future directions. International Journal of Emotional Education, 5(1), 56–72. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/26812358.pdf
Wake Tech Instructional. (2018, April 28). Wake Tech campus -civility video [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=cbGZA_CKrr8
Elizabeth “Beth” Lewis is an English instructor at Wake Technical Community College, where Emily Moore is the head of the Communication and Theatre Department.
A version of this article appears in The Best of the 2019 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. © 2020 Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.