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Will “Principles of Community” Fix Student & Professor Speech At Fresno State University?

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Will “Principles of Community” Fix Student & Professor Speech At Fresno State University?

After high profile professor speech issues, Fresno State University President Joseph Castro unveils the “Principles of Community,”after two years, unquestionably looking to 2020 election.

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I didn’t make it to Fresno State earlier this month for the University’s annual Spring Assembly. President Joseph Castro spoke to faculty and staff gathered at the Satellite Student Union.

But I did read the excellent news release from the Fresno State Communications staff describing the event. I came away thinking Castro, without directly saying so, has his eyes firmly fixed on the 2020 presidential election season (which, it seems, began the day after the November 2018 general election).

The 2016 election campaign and aftermath gave Fresno State and its reputation a ton of trouble. It appears Castro wants get an early start on laying some non-binding but strongly worded guidelines for the conduct of campus political/cultural debate.

Per the news release, Castro on Jan. 16 described positive trends. Student applications are up. So, too, are enrollment and faculty/staff salaries. Fresno State is near the very top in the California State University system when it comes to hiring tenure track faculty.

Castro touted a new online degree-completion program for former Fresno State students who departed short of their academic goals but in good academic standing. The point is to give these men and women another chance that fits their busy schedules. The first group of qualified students will test drive the program next fall.

“The success of our students will continue to be determined by big and bold personal dreams, a nurturing family environment, hard work and faculty and staff who are supportive and fully committed to discovery, diversity and distinction,”

Castro said.

Then there are various capital projects. Castro said science and engineering laboratories will be renovated. The University will begin the request-for-proposal phase in the planned construction of a new $125 million heating/cooling plant for the entire campus.

Said Castro:

“This year, the design phase for the new student union will begin, a feasibility study for a new performing arts facility will be initiated, bidding for the Ruiz Executive Classroom building has begun and the construction of a new locker room for the equestrian team is underway.”

Castro also unveiled the University’s new “Principles of Community,” a first at Fresno State.

The news release describes these principles as “an aspirational set of guidelines that were developed by a taskforce made up of faculty and staff. Developing the principles was one of several action items stemming from the 2017 Working Quality Survey. The goal of the survey was to better understand faculty and staff perceptions of their work environment. Over the course of the ensuing two years, dozens of work groups and thousands of employees participated in discussions around how employees communicate and interact with one another.”

Castro told the audience that the Principles are not a policy and are not intended to be enforced as such.

Said Castro:

“Instead, these principles exemplify what we aspire to be. I invite you to embrace them with me and to use these guidelines as a tool to help Fresno State reach our potential as a great place to work.”

The University’s “Office of the President” website lists the principles along with an introduction.

The introduction begins: “We all play a role in fostering an inclusive work and learning environment of respect, kindness, collaboration, and accountability where every member of the student body, faculty, staff, and administration can thrive.”

The principles themselves are divided into four sections. There are four to five principles in each section. Each principle is tightly written. Here’s a taste of Fresno State’s “Principles of Community”:

“WE ARE RESPECTFUL – To approach interpersonal interactions with collegiality and integrity, we strive to…

  • “value all employees and welcome their contributions.
  • “listen with attention to perspectives with the intent to understand.
  • “consider the impact of our communication….”

“WE ARE KIND – To foster a sense of belonging and demonstrate compassion, empathy, care, and concern, we strive to…

  • “contribute to making Fresno State a welcoming community for all.
  • “use words thoughtfully and be mindful of our actions.
  • “assume good intentions….”

The remaining two sections are titled “WE ARE COLLABORATIVE” and “WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

Now, why it took two years of work, more than 2,600 responses via an online poll and the input from nearly 30 focus groups to come up Fresno State’s “Principles of Community” isn’t explained in the news release. It seems to me a thorough study of an old fashioned Boy Scout handbook could have produced essentially the same product in a couple of days.

Nor does the new release explain why Fresno State for many decades was able to effectively pursue its higher-education mission without the formal codification of “principles of community.”

But we do know that from Spring semester 2016 through Spring semester 2018 Fresno State found itself in the media spotlight over comparisons of candidate Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler in the school newspaper, a faculty member’s threatening Tweets toward President Trump and a faculty member’s harsh comments on social media about Barbara Bush soon after the former First Lady’s death.

More to the point, Fresno State isn’t the only American university to have its campus roiled by modern politics and the culture wars. It’s not farfetched to say most American universities are experiencing unusual stresses in this regard. I say this as someone who began his college education in 1968.

Donald Trump almost certainly will run for re-election in 2020. The ideological diversity of Democratic presidential hopefuls will be broad. The ideological difference between Trump and the Democrats’ standard bearer will be vast. The public debate this time could be more heated than in 2016. That debate could begin in earnest by this time next year, if not sooner.

I’m guessing President Castro wants to get ahead of the curve, hence the labor-intensive effort to get campus-wide buy-in for his Principles of Community. Those principles don’t have the legal authority of a formal treaty among sovereign powers. But they are a very public statement of what a consensus of campus stakeholders view as proper behavior in the civic square.

Self-rule is hard. I’m sure Fresno State will do the right thing going forward. Best of luck to all.

Still, the Principles of Community required two years?!

I was a Cub Scout in 1959. If I recall correctly, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in 1959 could look up the Scout Law in their handbook and find that a scout is “Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”

That works.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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