Tom Eblen: Centre College students are proud of their 'civility pledge'

Idea was theirs, not administration's

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 11, 2012 

Centre College students David Miller, left, president of Centre Young Democrats; Patrick Cho, president of the Student Government Association; Ben Boone, president of the student Senate; and Luke Wetton, president of Centre Young Republicans, showed off a "civility pledge" that classmates have signed.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader

DANVILLE — David Miller is president of Centre College Young Democrats. Luke Wetton is president of Centre Young Republicans. They have different political philosophies, and they have debated each in the campus theater.

But they also are good friends. They eat lunch with the same group of students almost every day, and they hang out together most Friday and Saturday nights.

"We talk politics all the time, but with the understanding that disagreeing with the other's political viewpoints is not a personal attack," said Miller, 21, a senior from Orlando, Fla.

"The reason David and I have a good relationship is that we're in an environment where we can relate to each other and realize we're not that different," said Wetton, 20, a junior from Russellville.

One thing they do agree on is the "civility pledge" that Centre's Student Government Association created last year. It is a simple statement that covers a lot of ground: "I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community."

Virtually all of Centre College's 1,300 students have signed the pledge voluntarily, said Patrick Cho, the student government president. When Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, come to Centre's campus Oct. 11 for their only face-to-face debate before the election, students will ask them to sign it, too.

"If there are two people who are really going to get into it a battle of words and wits onstage, I think Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are the people to do it, and to do it well," Miller said. "But I don't think either of them are going to have a problem remaining civil and not insulting one another. They know what's expected of them."

Cho said the pledge grew out of conversations among Student Government Association members about the kind of campus culture they wanted to encourage.

The wording was borrowed from an admonition students often hear from Centre President John Roush: "Do your best, be your best, no regrets."

Students have rallied around the pledge because, unlike most college honor codes, the idea came from students rather than administrators or faculty, said Ben Boone, 22, a senior from Nicholasville and president of the student Senate.

"There's something very real and tangible about one student saying to another, 'We can have political disagreements, but there's no reason why you have to call me an idiot and I have to call you a liar,'" Miller said.

Cho said he wasn't aware of any students who have declined to sign the pledge. In fact, he said, a popular fashion accessory on campus is a yellow wrist band that says, "Be Your Best. No Regrets."

The debate — Centre's second, after hosting the 2000 vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney — has increased students' interest in politics. Both the Democrat and Republican student organizations have seen membership soar. Cho said student government is leading a voter-registration drive.

"One of the things our generation gets accused of is being politically apathetic, but I don't think that's true," Cho said.

But the young people said they are turned off by the hyper-partisan, money-influenced demagoguery and no-compromise attitudes prevalent in politics today. "People are yearning for something different," Cho said.

Miller and Wetton said they think the biggest problem with the baby boomers who run the country is that, unlike their predecessors, they don't have personal relationships with their political opponents.

"Previously, there seemed to be more understanding that politicians were elected to work together," Miller said. "Not to stand on opposite sides of the chamber and shout each other down. That's not a way to get anything done."

What advice would these Centre students give their elders?

"Calm down, share a meal together," Miller said. "Because we're in Kentucky, have some bourbon together. Having a good relationship outside of work helps."

Wetton encouraged political leaders to think about their legacy.

"If these people thought about that very carefully, they would realize that there is more value in being able to say we came together and sometimes agreed to disagree, but we made progress," he said. "That's better than always sticking to your guns and putting the country at risk."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen.Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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