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Should students be asked to sign a social contract?


I was quite surprised to see that my recent piece on admissions questions seemed to touch a nerve. I didn’t imagine that a piece calling on colleges to ask applicants to share their views on free speech, academic freedom or the value of the humanities would touch a nerve. But it clearly did.

Why?

Here’s my answer. To ask questions about student attitudes toward core academic issues is a signaling device: A way for colleges to communicate their concerns and priorities.

It turns out that colleges have mechanisms for change, often simple ones that they fail to take advantage of. It seems sensible, indeed painfully obvious, that colleges might ask applicants to discuss their views about civility and a well-rounded humanistic education.

Signaling has become a central topic not only in communication theory, but in biology, economics and sociology, among other fields. In biology, signaling involves communication between cells and organisms, such as the bright colors of certain animals to warn predators of their toxicity or the dance of bees to communicate the location of food. These signals are vital for survival, reproduction and social interaction.

In economics, signaling is a concept introduced by Michael Spence regarding job markets, where individuals signal their level of ability or competence to employers through education credentials or other indicators. Here, signaling helps solve problems of information asymmetry, where one party has more or better information than the other.

In social contexts, individuals use signals to convey social status, preferences or affiliations. This can include clothing choices, language use, consumer goods and behaviors that align with particular social groups or values.

Signals can be intentional or unintentional and can range from physical gestures, facial expressions and body language to more structured forms like advertising, branding, certifications or social media activity.

An especially exciting area of scholarship involves cell signaling—the complex system of communication that governs basic cellular activities and coordinates cell actions. Signaling is the mechanism by which cells respond to various stimuli from their environment or other cells, allowing them to process information and react accordingly. Cell signaling is crucial for the survival, growth, division and functioning of cells within an organism. It plays a fundamental role in numerous biological processes, including development, immune responses and the regulation of cellular metabolism.

Cell signaling is essential for regulating a wide range of cellular functions, such as gene expression, metabolism and cell cycle progression. In multicellular organisms, cell signaling is crucial for coordinating the activities of different cells, tissues and organs, ensuring that the organism functions as a cohesive unit. Signaling also plays a key role in embryonic development and the differentiation of cells into specialized types, in detecting and responding to pathogens and in maintaining homeostasis within the body by regulating processes such as glucose metabolism and water balance.

Cell signaling can be classified into several types based on the distance over which the signal is conveyed:

These include:

  • Autocrine signaling, in which a cell produces and releases chemical messengers that bind to receptors on its own surface or within the same cell that produced them, leading to a response from the cell itself.
  • Paracrine signaling, a form of cell-to-cell communication in which the signaling molecules released by one cell affect adjacent or nearby target cells.
  • Juxtacrine signaling, a type of cell communication that requires direct contact between the signaling and the target cell.
  • Synaptic signaling, a specialized form of communication that occurs between neurons at synapses, a which is fundamental to the functioning of the nervous system and to motor control, sensory processing, emotional and psychological responses, regulation of bodily functions and learning and memory.

Cellular signaling is a key to understanding embryonic development, functioning of the immune system, neural development, tissue repair, wound healing and cancer progression.

Signaling, in other words, has profound consequences.

Which is why a growing number of institutions are revisiting another kind of signal: whether to ask entering students to sign a social contract.

What might such a contract entail? Here are my thoughts.

Such a contract would include an agreed-upon set of principles and expectations designed to foster a positive, inclusive and productive academic and social environment. This contract would outline the responsibilities of students not only to themselves but also to their peers, faculty and the broader college community.

While the specifics could vary depending on the institution’s values and culture, a general social contract might include the following elements:

  • A commitment to academic integrity, including an agreement to avoid plagiarism, cheating and other forms of academic misconduct.
  • A commitment to diligence, engaging sincerely with their coursework, attending classes regularly and striving for academic excellence.
  • A respect for diversity and inclusivity: a pledge to respect the rights, differences and dignity of others, including students, faculty and staff, regardless of their background, identity or beliefs.
  • An agreement to contribute to an inclusive campus environment where everyone feels valued and empowered to participate fully in campus life.
  • A commitment to actively participate in campus life, including extracurricular activities, student organizations and community service opportunities.
  • A commitment to building a supportive and engaged campus community, including supporting peers and participating in community events.
  • A recognition of the importance of personal growth, self-care and the pursuit of holistic well-being, including physical, mental and emotional health.
  • An acknowledgment of personal responsibility for one’s actions and their impact on the community, coupled with a commitment to learning from mistakes.
  • A commitment to promoting a safe campus environment, including adhering to campus safety policies and respecting others’ boundaries.
  • An agreement to make informed and responsible decisions regarding substance use and to support peers in making healthy choices.
  • Respect for the campus’s facilities, property and its physical resources.
  • A commitment to sustainable practices and contributing to the college’s environmental sustainability efforts.
  • A pledge to uphold the principles of free speech, while also engaging in respectful and constructive dialogue.
  • An agreement to address disagreements or conflicts through open communication, mediation and other peaceful means.

Such a social contract would be designed not as a punitive measure but as a proactive agreement to help students understand and embrace their role in creating a positive college experience for themselves and others. It would underscore the shared responsibility of all community members to contribute to a respectful, safe and enriching campus environment.

Of course, if colleges asked entering students to sign a social contract, it would be equitable and constructive for the faculty and the college itself to commit to reciprocal obligations and standards to ensure a supportive, inclusive and high-quality educational environment.

Faculty would be expected to commit themselves to:

  • Deliver engaging, rigorous and relevant instruction that fosters critical thinking, creativity and a deep understanding of the subject matter.
  • Ensure an inclusive classroom environment that respects diverse backgrounds, perspectives and learning styles, where all students feel valued and supported.
  • Offer regular office hours and be available for student consultations, providing guidance, feedback and support to facilitate student learning and success.
  • Maintain high standards of professional conduct and ethics, including fairness in assessment, confidentiality and avoiding conflicts of interest.
  • Engage in ongoing professional development to stay current with pedagogical best practices, disciplinary advancements and technological innovations that enhance learning.

The institution itself would commit to providing:

  • A safe, supportive campus environment that promotes well-being, with policies and resources to prevent and address harassment, discrimination and violence.
  • Comprehensive academic support services, including tutoring centers, writing centers and technology resources to support student learning.
  • Accessible mental health services and wellness programs to support students’ emotional, psychological and physical health and appropriate accommodations and an individualized learning plan for students with disabilities.
  • Career counseling, internship opportunities and professional development services to help students prepare for their future careers.
  • Clear, transparent and open communication about institutional policies, procedures and expectations, as well as any changes that may affect students.
  • Student engagement through clubs organizations, student government and extracurricular activities that enrich the college experience and give students leadership opportunities.
  • The creation of a diverse and equitable campus community, including efforts to recruit and retain a diverse student body, faculty and staff and to integrate diversity and equity into the curriculum.
  • Mechanisms for receiving and responding to student feedback on courses, faculty performance and overall student experience, with a commitment to continuous improvement.
  • Transparency regarding tuition, fees, financial aid and scholarship opportunities and offer robust financial support services to assist students in managing their education expenses.

By signing such a social contract, faculty and colleges demonstrate their commitment to creating a nurturing, respectful and academically stimulating environment. This mutual agreement underscores the shared responsibility of all community members—students, faculty and the institution—to contribute to a positive and productive educational experience.

There are arguments for and against asking entering students to sign a social contract—above all, whether such a contact can indeed foster a sense of community, responsibility and respect among students.

On the plus side, such a contract can instill a sense of shared values and standards within the college community, emphasizing respect, integrity and inclusivity. It can clearly outline the behaviors and standards expected of students, reducing ambiguities about academic integrity, respectful discourse and campus conduct, which can help prevent misconduct. In addition, it can enhance accountability. By agreeing to a set of standards, students are more likely to feel a personal responsibility to uphold these values, knowing that they have made a commitment to their peers and the institution.

More negatively, a contract can be seen as paternalistic, treating adult students as if they require strict rules and oversight to behave appropriately, which could foster resentment rather than cooperation. Also, practical enforcement of the contract would be challenging and may well lead to inconsistencies and perceived injustices in how rules are applied, potentially undermining trust in the institution.

Then, too, there is concern that social contracts could be used to restrict free speech or academic freedom by setting overly broad definitions of unacceptable behavior, especially in matters of controversial discourse. In addition, focusing too much on regulation can detract from the educational mission of the institution, potentially stifling the spontaneity and exploration that are central to the college experience.

All in all, I would urge colleges to consider drafting such a contract. A first step might be to conduct a needs assessment to identify the key issues that the contract should address. Assess the current campus climate, challenges and areas of concern through surveys, focus groups and forums.

Drawing on the needs assessment, various stakeholders should define the core values—respect, integrity, diversity, equity and inclusion—that the social contract will promote. Various drafts, then, should clearly outline expectations for behavior, responsibilities of community members and consequences of not adhering to the contract.

Obviously, such a process must solicit extensive feedback, including public forums, online platforms or targeted discussions with student organizations and academic departments.

Involving the entire campus community in the drafting process is essential if the campus hopes to build a sense of ownership and commitment to the social contract. In addition, the drafting process should open dialogue about campus issues, improving communication between students, faculty and administration.

Would a social contract make a practical difference? I think it might.

For one thing, such a contract might establish clear expectations about campus values, behavior and student, faculty and institutional responsibilities. It might also foster a sense of belonging and commitment to the campus community and help create a culture where civility, inclusion, diversity and mutual respect are valued and expected. A contract might offer a framework and reference point for addressing and resolving conflicts and breaches of conduct.

Of course, if the social contract will improve campus climate and promote a more respectful, supportive and civil environment, its success depends on input from a wide range of stakeholders, widespread buy-in and regular assessment.

In academic life, there are no panaceas. But the very process of discussing and agreeing to a social contract can be an educational experience in itself. It provides an opportunity to engage students in conversations about ethics, respect and the importance of community, which can have a lasting impact on their attitudes and behaviors.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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