My View: Civility lesson: Are you listening, Congress?
The president of Gettysburg College says that students at her school can offer an example of how to confront an emotionally-charged issue with civility.
July 17th, 2012
06:15 AM ET

My View: Civility lesson: Are you listening, Congress?

Courtesy Gettysburg CollegeBy Janet Morgan Riggs, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Janet Morgan Riggs is president of Gettysburg College, alumna from the class of 1977 and professor of psychology.

Congress has been trapped in gridlock for much of President Obama’s term. Politics seem to consistently trump bipartisan civil discourse.

I’d like to offer Congress an example that might inspire them to move beyond politics.

My institution, this past semester, confronted an emotionally charged controversy with respect and civility. We forged a solution, and we shook hands across the aisle. We even shed a few tears of pride - because it was students who led the way.

Decades ago, the Army withdrew Reserve Officer Training Corps instruction from Gettysburg College as part of a consolidation of military programs. Students who wished to enroll in ROTC remained able to do so at another college about 45 minutes away.

However, the military’s rejection of gays and lesbians and subsequent don’t ask, don’t tell policy ran counter to the college’s values: We welcome all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Accordingly, our faculty ruled that academic credit would not be given for ROTC — despite its rigor and many benefits to our nation — because the program discriminated against some members of our community.

This decision was principled and symbolized our community’s support for gay and lesbian individuals. But what about our ROTC cadets? How could we not recognize their hard work and dedication? This was our conundrum and one that raised its head frequently.

When don’t ask, don’t tell was finally repealed, our faculty began to re-examine ROTC but found that the military continues to bar transgendered and transsexual individuals. As a result, a majority of our faculty voted against reinstating credit for ROTC, and our dilemma remained.

The debate resurfaced when we learned that all students are permitted to take ROTC courses, even though the military will not accept all of those students into service. A turning point came when a faculty member challenged our ROTC student cadets and the student members of our ALLies organization (which supports gay, lesbian, transgendered and transsexual individuals) to construct an agreement that would embody our welcoming values, respecting and accommodating all viewpoints.

Our student ROTC cadets and members of ALLies took that charge to heart, came together in community and jointly crafted a proposal far beyond any previously considered by our faculty: rescind the ban on academic credit for military science courses, proclaim that such action in no way endorses the military’s discriminatory policies, and provide all students with formalized opportunities to debate military policies that bar transgendered and transsexual people from serving openly.

At long last, it was students who found a solution. They balanced commitment to military service with commitment to equal rights. They demonstrated that community can accommodate civil debate and, indeed, be strengthened by it. They discerned that the gap between their perspectives was not as wide as it first seemed. The faculty resoundingly approved their motion.  And that’s when some tears of pride were shed.

I cannot help but think that the students who led this discussion, whether they enter the military or pursue other careers, will have a positive impact on our nation. They have learned what a liberal arts community teaches best: civility, creative problem-solving and leadership.

I wish I could elect those students to Congress today. They would show those in Washington that thoughtful decision-making often requires compromise and that the very essence of democracy rests on our ability to engage in civil discourse.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Janet Morgan Riggs.


Posted by
Filed under: College • Issues • Military • Voices
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. mikes888

    Many things have been suggested to encourage civility, like a civility monitor for Congress. Someone with authority to stop debate the moment someone departs from polite dialogue. How about the very direct approach suggested at of calling out, respectfully of course, those in politics and the media who go over the line and providing contact information for folks to express their views? Only when we, the people, get involved, I think, can progress be made. Also, we need to form a lobby for civility. That might be doable faster than we think but folks on the net would have to get involved.

    July 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  2. Mariposer

    How is this a compromise when all that happened was that the students decided the college should simply abolish its previous resolution not to award credit for ROTC? That's not a middle ground or a compromise, just a change from no to yes. Why all the fuss n time n crying? The military doesn't care about n will not be affected by the fact that Gettysburg doesn't approve their policies against transgender people. They'll just see now that G's students can now get credit again for their military pursuits.

    Compromise means we both win n lose some. It doesn't mean we scratch your idea n go with mine instead.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  3. Ted

    Military efficacy correlates directly with unit cohesion. So, RB, I disagree as a professional military officer involved in training entry-level members of the US military. We could go further down that rabbit hole, but that is not the point though.

    My point is only that it smacks heavily of irony to be crowing about civility when you are punishing students who are seeking to serve their country because you do not agree with one of your country's policies. Agree or disagree with the military and its policies, but support and encourage those courageous students who seek to put their life in harm's way for your right to do so. Especially, in this case, because those young men and women are seeking to be selected for positions where they will be responsible directly for the lives of others.

    And, yes, life is not fair. Neither should it be. Life is struggle and its victories are all the more sweet because that its true.

    July 21, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. PJ

    Actually the whole civility issue is horsepuckey. A BS issue which we DO NOT need to embrace. The wealthy, the powerful, the entrenched corporate and special interests have declared war on and are pusuing a campaign to enslave and disenfranchise the poor and Middle Class. They are using vast wealth to undermine Democracy and manipulate the system to make them all but immune to any sort of oversight or regulation. We should not IN ANY WAY pursue a path of "civility" with these people- they are destroying our Country, our Government and our Communities. They should be hunted down; lynched; destroyed or imprisioned immediately by any means neccesary. They are traitors, bullies, criminals, economic terrorists, child molesters, and rapists. Civility?!! Wall Street and its parasites should burn.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  5. Liz the First

    What we need is people who care more about governing than abo ut destroying a president they hate. a duly elected president at that, as opposed to the last one. keeping the country in a distressed situation for the purpose of getting a president voted out of office is, in my mind, treason. civility is an honorable goal, but basic devotion to country over party would be a better place to start. i'm beginning to think we should just draft folks for congress the way we do for jury duty. we sure couldn't get much worse than what's i there now. we may get a bunch of folks with common sense who could concentrate on doing what's right for the country instead of doing only what will get them re-elected.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Paul

      If you go back in time a read about the person we elected you have to wonder why? He does not lead he makes up word and seems to be more about redistribution than about increasing jobs. I am an independent voter and I find it so odd that people look more at the party than at the accomplishments of the individual candidates. Wonder why we have few manufacturing jobs in this country? Unions and NAFTA. NAFTA was signed by a democrat (Clinton) Unions cause part of the problem with unfair wage standards. I support the unions ideals but I do not support a fork lift driver making 75k a year. When Unions get out of control and lose sight of what they are there for then they are part of the problem and no longer the solution.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  6. tim

    In my marriage...and congress should be no different.. when I want something and my wife doesn't...I don't get it. The same visa versa. I suggest congress act the same way.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  7. tim

    I don't call a minor majority passing health care when the other half didn't want it...civility. Dems declared war...the war began. If I treated my other half the way this health care law was passed....shove it down her throat....i'd been divorced a long time ago.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • JJ

      Yah, keep on believing conservatives are just blameless, innocent victims

      July 17, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • jim

      As if the Republicans didn't shove their dumbed down Christianity, racial bigotry and violence down the country's throat.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  8. xfiler93

    civility for polictians? LOL good one.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  9. LR

    As a student of Gettysburg College, I am very proud of my classmates for coming to a compromise on a very difficult topic. It is very personal to a lot of people, and I know many students both from ROTC and Allies who really wanted to see this agreement made. They worked very hard and were very successful. I'm equally as glad that the faculty accepted the students' hard work and finally allowed ROTC students the credit they rightfully deserve! Those students take on a full, rigorous course load at school and then put in many more hours for ROTC classes and training. Laws have nothing to do with their hard work and dedication. I'm glad Gettysburg College will finally recognize them for it through course credit.

    July 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  10. Ted

    Gettysburg College was certainly not civil when it decided to punish students with a desire to serve their country because of an objection to the laws of the land. They are a private college though and that is their right, but the fact that they are more concerned with chasing the unicorn of fairness at the expense of military effectiveness than trying to encourage young men and women to serve their country tells me a lot about their character.

    July 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • RB

      It was the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that was at the expense of military effectiveness. The stance that Gettysburg College faculty took in the 90's was merely in response to this discriminatory law that prohibited its students with a desire to serve their country to do so simply because they were gay or lesbians. Many U.S. military allies (including Canada, Britain, Australia, etc.) allow their transgendered citizens to serve their country proudly too. And so should the U.S.

      July 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • james pfeiffer

      Judging from "Ted's" response to the fair minded hard work of these colleges students in regard to a very difficult and complex problem, it is not only congress who need help understanding social and political issues. In many ways our congress simply mirrors the overall lack of tolerance and wisdom of our confused electorate.

      July 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Julian

      The unicorn of fairness?

      July 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
      • Capt Beefheart

        I feel I'm stating the obvious, but "the unicorn of fairness" says fairness doesn't exist. I'd hate to live in Ted's world.

        July 18, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  11. Solo

    No one is civil these days. Most do not even have any idea of what it means to be polite and courteous. Our so-called leaders use profanity, treat each other with rude comments and attacks and waste tax dollars on temper tantrums. I had no idea that our current President would be such a lousy diplomat and leader. He clearly is under qualified for this role – even Morgan Freeman thinks so, meaning it's not a racial issue as some would like to continue to try and make it. This is about decency and the maturity to know how to conduct yourself. People in general are so focused on themselves (including parents who do not watch their children in public) that they forget basic manners, including a simple 'please' and 'thank you.'

    July 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Mossy

      Well said!

      July 17, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  12. jack

    sandie shuck – You're an idiot.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  13. Joe Unger

    I'm so tired about people blaming congress for incivility. Do you people not understand that the people who elect congress want them to be uncivil? That if you're not "conservative enough" you will not be re-elected? That if you're a Democrat and you want to listen to the Republican side, you will not be re-elected? Obviously not all voters feel this way but enough do to polarize this country and congress is reflecting that. Do you recall Obama supporters labeling Bill Clinton a racist? The problems with congress start with the people who elected them.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • JC

      I don't think you can make that connection. It also seems to be an easy way to shift the blame away from our government. Which specific individuals do you blame? Congress is ultimately responsible for its actions.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Cynthia

      Joe, I would disagree with that statement. There is a big difference between incivility and disagreement, and civility doesn't mean compromise. I can easily disagree with you without being nasty, harsh and cruel. I expect those I vote into office to look out for the best interests of all they represent, but I also expect them to do so in a civil, respectful manner. I believe you need to look up the word 'civil' in the dictionary and understand its meaning before you comment.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
      • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

        Cynthia, both you and Joe bring up some good points. Part of the difficulty on the Compromise end is neither side appears willing to budge from their core issues, and when they do (at least on the Republican side), they find themselves splashed all over Rush's show as traitors.
        As for Civility, when the previous Vice-President tells a senator to perform an anatomically impossible act in the halls of congress, and when a Congressman stands up and shouts "You lie!" during a State of the Union address, it doesn't do much to help their reputation for Civility. Too bad I really cannot say the Democrats are any better than the Republicans.
        What we need are politicians with enough backbone to tell the party leaders to take that proverbial long walk off the short pier and get down to the work of making our government work for all of us, not just a few.

        July 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  14. Ann Sasala

    I am so proud of the ROTC cadets I worked with as well as the other ALLies members to make sure that a compromise could be reached. It took us hours to reach a consensus and to draft the statement, and I know that all of us are proud not only that we managed to see things from others perspectives, but also that we had the opportunity to have this discussion, and to continue it throughout the coming year.

    Thank you President Riggs!

    July 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  15. sandie shuck

    It starts with our President-Obama is going after Romney on Bain when Romney was a private citizen. One of Obama's campaign manger accused Romney of felony.
    But yet he, Obama, does not go after the private citizen Warren Buffet-the CEO of the private company Coke- Coca cola bottles their many drinks in overseas bottling companies from Europe to Vietnam.
    Obama even names his tax idea the Buffet rule.
    He picks the CEO of GE to be on his own American council to create jobs. GE has people working for them countries all over the world-about170,000
    I do wonder why Harry Reid, in the Democratic Senate, did not pass Obama's budget and refuses to even bring many House bills to the floor-he is called pocket veto Reid.
    I think Obama needs to quit going after Romney in this way when Obama is the King of outsourcers of our tax money and go out and talk, truthfully about what he has done-he needs to give stats of when he came in and now so we know his record so we can decide based on facts.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • JC

      Your statement is not relevant to this article. Your political rant (be it right or wrong) doesn't belong here.

      July 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • TM

      Sandie although I understand your point it has nothing to do with the article.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • JBH need to back away from the coffee and the keyboard.

      July 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Capt Beefheart

      Huh? Where'd this come from and how is it relevant to the topic?

      July 18, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  16. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    I am guessing that her college is not run by people who are too old to learn and too mean to die.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  17. Judith Lindquist

    Wonderfully thoughtful piece by Gettysburg's president. I was on campus during the years when this issue was a sticky-wicket that elicited lots of hand-wrenching but little purposeful movement toward reconciliation. This action by Gettysburg students is indeed an example of meaningful compromise for us all.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:14 am |