MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — Yo, Jersey: Be nice.
Rutgers University, the flagship university in a state known for ruthless mob bosses, petulant reality show stars and cutthroat drivers, is launching a two-year project to get people – at least those on campus – to behave better.
Students, faculty and other employees are encouraged to attend a series of lectures, presentations and discussions on civility that start Wednesday. Residents in the community won't be turned away if there's space.
Kathleen Hull, one of the school officials running the project, says Rutgers has some civility problems, but it's no different from other schools. It's as civil as the world around it, she says.
But Hull realizes that some New Jerseyans relish a "rough-and-tumble" reputation. "We could come up with a new slogan: 'Project Civility: You got a problem with that?'" she said.
Student government President Yousef Saleh, a senior from Jersey City, said he sees some examples of people being civil – sharing umbrellas, for instance – but some problems, too.
"One person closes their book five seconds before the end of class, and then it's like a waterfall, everybody closes their book," he said. "It's disrespectful to the professor."
And don't get him started on the nastiness than can infuse student government politics.
He doesn't blame New Jersey.
"It's because we're college students and we're paying for services and we all feel entitled to have a seat on a bus, we feel there should be short lines at takeout," he said. "We're paying the professor so we should be able to leave class whenever we feel like it."
The project includes a series of lectures and programs, exploring such topics as how cell phones, iPods and other gadgets affect civility, and sportsmanship for athletes and fans.
The first session is a presentation by P.M. Forni, author of "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct" and founder of The Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
He said he'll tell students that civility isn't just about manners. Rather, it's a form of the enlightened self-interest.
Forni said research is finding that social intelligence – how to get along with others – is a better indicator of success than the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests.
"If you accept that life is relational, you must accept that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships," he said.
In other words: You get something out of understanding and treating others well. That's a lesson most Rutgers students have learned by the time they're through, Saleh said. But it takes awhile.
Forni, has been giving lectures and presentations around the country on civility for more than a decade. He said the Rutgers effort is the most ambitious he's seen to encourage civility on campus.
Hull, who directs the university's Byrne Seminars at its main campus in New Brunswick, said she's not sure the project will change the campus environment.
Her hopes are relatively modest: Allowing students and university staff to speak openly about civility, maybe coming up with campuswide classroom policies on cell phones and text messaging, and possibly drafting some rules of conduct on the university's fleet of buses, where students have been known to hog two seats while someone else is left standing.
But she said, students may not buy into the idea that they need to act better.
"For all I know," Hull said, "there may be a rejection."