GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew: Civility Is about Connectedness, Not Strength

George Talks Business guest lecturer tells audience that diverse backgrounds, ideas and voices are all needed to bridge divides.

George Talks Business with Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew
GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew was the guest speaker for the George Talks Business series: the Richard W. Blackburn Endowed Lecture on Civility and Integrity. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 04, 2021

By Nick Erickson 

While there were plenty of recent examples GW Law Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law Dayna Bowen Matthew could have used to show what civility doesn’t look like, she instead left the audience at Wednesday night’s George Talks Business event with a tranquil picture of a forest filled with redwood trees standing tall as the sunlight poked through their branches.

As she delivered the Richard W. Blackburn Endowed Lecture on Civility and Integrity, which George Washington University School of Business (GWSB) Dean Anuj Mehrotra moderated, Dr. Matthew said that while she’s no arborist, she knows those trees are connected by an underground root system that is intertwined and co-dependent so they individually can stand tall. She believes that is a perfect metaphor for how a civil society can function.

“Let's not take a side without understanding the perspective that others may hold,” she encouraged both the in-person crowd at Funger Hall and the online audience watching on YouTube. “We can be civil in our disagreement; we can be accepting of others in our discourse. We can be honorable and respectful, as is the GW way, to bring people together at their times of most bitter divide and disagreement. I think this picture is worth 1,000 words.”

Dr. Matthew is a lawyer and legal scholar with three decades of experience. She is also a national expert in civil rights law, health equity and public health policy. The first woman to lead GW Law, Dr. Matthew has spent much of her career fighting against incivility that is now prevalent in the United States. Yet, she has also seen what happens when the power elite use civility as a weapon, noting Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of her native New York City, as an example.

Mr. Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policies initially won him a high approval rating and lowered the crime rates throughout the city under what was called his Civility Campaign. But he became disrespectful of others and started to denounce those who challenged him. His policies, she said, also disproportionately affected the disenfranchised. Dr. Matthew has seen this pattern continue in politics, law and society, and she warned the audience not to associate civility with toughness and authenticity, but rather acceptance and respect for the humanity of all.

“A 'Tower of Strength,' such as Time Magazine named Mayor Giuliani, is not civility,” Dr. Matthew said. “It is a tower of compassion, of caring and of connectedness that matters.”

Dr. Matthew referenced George Washington’s 110 rules of civility throughout her talk and noted how the first president who set up a government that enforced term limits and laid the foundation of a two-party system that would allow for civil debate encouraged citizens to not be so grounded in their own opinions but to come together to hear others.

She noted the significance of the merged event between GW Law and GWSB. Both of those schools at GW, the university named after the man behind those words, answered a national calling. GW Law started in 1865 months after the end of the Civil War, while GWSB launched a year before the stock market crashed in 1928, preparing business leaders to pull the country through tough times.

With the country in a highly divisive political climate now, Dr. Matthew said GW is a place where future leaders can learn to use civility as a vehicle to steer a polarized nation back together. 

“It’s in our DNA both at the GW School of Business and at GW Law to come to our nation's assistance and aid when trust is broken,” Dr. Matthew said.

To do that, Dr. Matthew believes a wide variety of voices should be at the table. She said the workforce and students in our respective schools need to have people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. She said that if there is diversity in those places, then the knowledge and values represented will cover many viewpoints, thus helping the university to produce information that can open the eyes of all who wish to serve and lead. Dr. Mehrotra, who interviewed Dr. Matthew in a Q & A format after her presentation, agreed.

“We need to understand our diverse student body as well as our faculty and staff,” he said. “And we need to be appreciative of the different ways of showing this.”

Including and integrating those voices can answer the great challenge ahead, Dr. Matthew said. She encouraged everyone to realize that people need to depend on each other—just as as redwood trees depend on one another at their roots—to grow.

“I think building a culture of connected community is the challenge of civility,” Dr. Matthew said. “I think if we reverse the sense that we can stand alone is the way that we can possibly reverse the decline of civility in America.”

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