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May 15, 1997


"Pitt Promise": Insulting,futile, meaningless

To the editor:

Who in his or her right mind would have the audacity and idiocy to find fault with "The Pitt Promise: A Commitment to Civility"? (University Times, April 17, 1997.) I may not be in my right mind as a spoilsport contrarian party-pooper, but the specter of "The Pitt Promise" — and let the University of Cincinnati, the University of Akron, the University of South Carolina, and yes, even the University of Pennsylvania make fools of themselves by hopping aboard the bandwagon of civility worshippers like a gaggle of sycophants — is embarrassing.

Embarrassing, first, because it is naive to expect that a mere verbal commitment to goodness, to noble deeds, to angelic behaviors, will magically achieve nirvana.

Embarrassing, next, because it assumes simplistically that the taking of an oath is all that is necessary to rise above the hostility toward others, and the greed and sinfulness inherent in us all. The oath to abide by the Constitution of the United States taken by public officials is broken every day. The vaunted Hippocratic oath taken by physicians is discredited daily if we are to believe not all but only a fraction of the scandalous disregard for patients perpetrated by physicians intimidated by managed care's bureaucratic bookkeepers. And what about the miscreant men of the cloth who dishonor themselves by ignoring their religious vows when they sexually victimize youngsters in their charge who idolize and trust them totally? These vows and oath-takings are violated regularly and shamelessly, by people and organizations, mind you, who are commercially, professionally, and ethically intended to be governed by their vows and oaths. So isn't it ingenuous to expect that for college freshmen matriculating at Pitt "The Pitt Promise" will amount to more than a tinker's damn, a hill of beans? Embarrassing, finally, because most Pitt students already behave with civility and decorum, and those who don't won't have their behavior changed one whit by perfunctorily signing a smorgasbord of platitudinous resolutions. If I were a freshman and asked to sign this pledge I would say, respectfully, "No way, Jose!" "The Pitt Promise" and quest for a Shangri-la in civility is embarrassing because it assumes, like the Singer sewing machine people, that "wishing will make it 'sew.'" Rather, behavioral changes such as those that are artlessly enumerated in "The Pitt Promise" take blood, sweat,tears, and much practice and indoctrination to become a reality. The civilities therein are better shaped in the home, the church, and in exercises in and courses on ethics, not by a mere recital of a meaningless catechism. "The Pitt Promise" is also embarrassing and a serious obstacle, I truly believe, to encouraging our students to express themselves honestly and aggressively. We must not offer up a code of civility that seems to me to be an equivalence of political correctness. It is far better to foster a culture of freedom of expression, albeit occasionally somewhat uncivil, than to deify a culture of civility that is saturated with guarded statements and political correctness. Consider this: Where would we be today were we bereft of the candor and "incivility" of the likes of Galileo, Isaac Newton, FDR, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Golda Meir, Charles Darwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Curie, Walter Lippmann, Picasso? Genius, yes; "civility," hardly.

p I have neither the wisdom nor the erudition, and neither the arrogance nor the certitude to prescribe a "magic bullet" or a "Salk vaccine" needed to restore civility to our society. But I would first seek to define civility and then to probe for its benefits and costs. I would never, never, never endeavor, by sweeping and doctrinaire fiat, to impose a code of civility upon entering freshmen without first engaging my colleagues in philosophy, poetry, literature, and the social sciences in a dialogue as to what civility is, when civility is desirable, and indeed where incivility may be desirable. As it now stands, "The Pitt Promise: A Commitment to Civility" is unfit to be associated with a great institution of higher learning which in some ways we are but greater we will never be by adopting impulsively a knee-jerk lock-step obeisance to today's ephemeral "flavor of the week" civility. This "promise" is saturated with groupthink, conformity and mediocrity. Let us abandon "The Pitt Promise," an insulting, meaningless and futile pledge.

Robert Perloff

Professor Emeritus

Katz Graduate School of Business


Robert P. Gallagher, interim vice chancellor for Student Affairs, responds:

I welcome Dr. Perloff's response to "The Pitt Promise" since one of the purposes in writing it was to increase dialogue on the concept of civility. It may indeed be a "naive" and "sophomoric" exercise as Dr. Perloff suggests, but "The Pitt Promise" was an honest attempt to put in writing what many of us, especially the students who worked so hard on the project, believe are values that ought to be made more explicit on a university campus.

There were a few misunderstandings in Dr. Perloff's letter. For example, it has never been anyone's intent to have students sign this pledge. Students will be encouraged to read it, but there will be no mandate that they do so.

Also, no one associated with the project has ever expressed the belief that the commitment to civility would cure students of inherent sinfulness. As Dr. Perloff correctly points out, the constitutional oath, marriage vows, the Hippocratic oath and the Ten Commandments have not accomplished this goal. Nevertheless, I hope we can agree that all of these codes have made some contribution to civilized society.

I agree with Dr. Perloff that most Pitt students already behave with civility and decorum, but many of these same students tell me that they wish the University would be more vocally supportive of these values. I also agree that the development of these kinds of values takes "blood, sweat, tears and much practice and indoctrination to become a reality." But does talking about such values and encouraging students to commit to them take away from any of the above? I further agree that these civilities are better shaped in the home, the church and in exercises and courses in ethics, but nowhere has it been suggested that "The Pitt Promise" is a replacement for such forums.

One of the motivating forces in developing this pledge was an article published in the May/June 1988 Harvard Review entitled "Ethics, the University and Society." It was written by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, and in it he argues passionately for universities to commit themselves to helping students achieve higher ethical standards. Bok suggests a comprehensive approach including courses in applied ethics, but he also believes that we need to offer arguments and encouragement of many kinds to persuade students to adhere to basic ethical norms such as honesty, nonviolence, promise keeping and respect for others. He also states that the values of the institution should be especially emphasized at the outset of the undergraduate experience since he believes that never again are students "likely to be so attentive to what the institution says or so open to advice about what aspirations and values matter most." I think it also needs to be said that nothing in this commitment to civility project suggests discouraging students from expressing themselves honestly and aggressively. In fact, the pledge encourages students not only to "honor" but to "challenge" the scholarly heritage left by those who preceded them. If we do have a potential Galileo, Jefferson, Newton, Thoreau or Gandhi among us, it is unlikely that a reading of "The Pitt Promise" would inhibit his or her development, creativity or activism.

I am no ethicist and am poorly qualified to enter into a debate on moral education. However, I do not think that this effort is either "meaningless" or "futile" although it is perhaps guilty of "groupthink" as Dr. Perloff suggests. The pledge grew out of discussions with student leaders, drew heavily upon their suggestions and has had broad input from others in the University community.

The civility statement is, of course, an imperfect document, and will undoubtedly change as we continue to discuss it. It is, however, a small attempt to do some good and in no way should it interfere with Dr. Perloff or others who desire to enter into dialogue with colleagues about the true definition of civility, or to take other more scholarly initiatives to approach this important topic.


Noted author to speak on Abu-Jamal case

To the editor:

We are writing to inform members of the University community that they will have an opportunity to hear Alice Walker, distinguished author and activist, speaking on campus on May 28, at 7:30 p.m., in the Bellefield Hall auditorium.

Ms. Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Color Purple," which was made into an acclaimed film, will be speaking about the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the award-winning journalist who is currently on death row near Pittsburgh and whose case has sparked international controversy and response.

This is a special opportunity to obtain reliable information about a case that has been widely misrepresented. This is also an occasion where questions will be openly raised and publicly discussed. You will have a chance to satisfy yourself as to the facts.

The event has been organized by the Pitt Chapter of the Western Pa. Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. It is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Office of Student Affairs, the law school, the Institute for International Studies in Education, the Honors College, the Women's Studies Program, the Graduate Student Progressive Action Network, History Graduate Student Organization, the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, and the departments of Africana studies, communication, English and history.

We urge you to attend, to encourage others to attend, and to assist in publicizing the event. A man's life is on the line.

Dennis Brutus

Africana Studies and Marcus Rediker History

(Editor's note: This letter was also signed by faculty members and administrators from the following areas: Faculty of Art and Sciences dean's office; Department of Communication; Department of Sociology/Women's Studies Program; GSPIA; French and Italian languages and literatures; Hispanic languages and literature, and the School of Education.)


Don't overlook med school's grad students

To the editor:

I read with interest the article by Bruce Steele in the May 1 edition of the University Times regarding the various divisions of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I was, however, disappointed to learn that "The Pitt School of Medicine educates University medical students." In addition to the first professional program, the School of Medicine also currently has enrolled about 140 students seeking Ph.D. degrees in six different graduate programs. Failing to identify graduate student education as a key part of the academic mission of the School of Medicine only serves to reinforce the unfortunate impression that graduate students are, somehow, second-class citizens. In reality, graduate students are a vital component of the school, and make a substantial contribution to the research and teaching activities that have elevated the School of Medicine to a position of national prominence.

Ian J. Reynolds

Associate Professor

Department of Pharmacology

Associate Dean Graduate Studies

School of Medicine

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