No cussing in the operational campus environment?

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On the fence around a construction site that I walk past every day is this sign:

No doubt students, faculty, and staff appreciate the sentiment, though not many of us would have thought to describe a university as "an operational campus environment".

In fact that phrase puzzles me a bit. "Operational environment" seems to be a piece of U.S. military jargon, defined as "A composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander". Additional modifiers can come either before or after operational:

(link) It can be very difficult to implement a comprehensive operational security environment
(link) The IATT accreditation decision is a special case for authorizing testing in an operational information environment or with live data for a specified time period.
(link) The Relevancy of Inform and Influence Activities in the Garrison Operational Environment

Without knowing that, I would have guessed that an "operational campus environment" was a campus environment that was operational. But given the operational jargon environment, I suspect that it's really an operational environment that's on campus.

Anyhow, the construction workers are being held to a stricter standard of conduct than the students are. In 15 years as residential faculty, I've never seen a student written up for "swearing".


  1. Martin Eberl said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    Meanwhile, I am wondering what qualifies as "improper conduct". Seems like an argument could be made for swearing to fall under that provision. Basically anything could, unless it's a legal term I am not aware of?

  2. Christian Saunders said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    Fuck that sign. Oops, broke a rule already. Also, I don't like that rogue ampersand.

  3. Guy said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    This collocation is necessary. According to the information provided by the Bothan spies, the campus environment was still at a stage of construction where its superlaser wasn't functioning.The sign is to let us know that it's too late for our friends on and in orbit around Endor.

  4. j said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    See, if not for the explanation here, I would have assumed "operational campus environment" meant "this is a campus, and it's actually being used as a campus. It's not just a construction site, there are actual students here." Do we have any particular reason to believe the military usage is active here rather than this?

  5. Nick Barnes said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    So either drugs or alcohol are fine, but there's no tolerance for combining them?

  6. Sam said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    I work in the construction field (large solar projects), and we use the term "operational" quite a bit to describe places where we are working. In many cases our projects are in the middle of nowhere, and our crews can have the run of the place, but in some cases they are building on a store, or warehouse, or university campus. I might tell people, "you'll need a better traffic control plan because this is an operational facility." or "As an operational hospital you'll all need to wear your security badges every day."

    In that sense, "operational" really does mean "it is operating as a store/warehouse/university" rather than the slightly more elaborate military meaning, though the intent is the same – this is a more complex place than you may be used to working. It impacts minor things like swearing, but most importantly it impacts safety procedures – material handling, dust control, trash and debris cleanup, etc. It is much harder to work in a facility that is "operational" than one that isn't.

    We also use the term to describe our own solar plants. Say we are going to have visitors to a plant, I may say, "This is an operational plant environment, so don't touch any buttons or switches."

  7. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    I assume "improper conduct" is about catcalling or otherwise harassing students, this being a pretty common stereotype about construction workers' behavior.

    Can anyone think why they care about smoking outside though?

  8. Dennis Baron said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    Of course it's about catcalling. That would be its primary motivation, I'd imagine.

    And "operational campus environment" means something like, this place is open for business while you're working, so don't interfere with the day-to-day operations if you can help it.

    And the no-smoking has to do with more and more campuses where smoking is banned on the whole campus, not just in buildings. So, essentially, observe that restriction on the worksite as well.

    But the primary motivation? Catcalling.

    Why doesn't it say anything about hard hats required?

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    While I can see the general plausibility of the notion that the outside contractor should ask its employees to adopt to the mores of the institution where they're temporarily working (since that institution is, after all, the customer paying the bills), I wonder if that holds true for an educational institution. Given increasing awareness of the downside of having Ivy-educated social elites be insulated from and clueless about the lives of the less-elite strata of American society, why wouldn't it be a great educational opportunity for Penn students to be able to observe the way construction workers will tend to behave in their own social/ecological niche left to their own devices? Think of it as a diversity-and-inclusion initiative.

  10. Kitteh said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    @J.W.Brewer – yes, but imagine how long the sign would be if they had to put all the trigger warnings necessary on an uncontrolled exposure to the natural environment being part of the campus experience. It's obviously cheaper and easier to browbeat construction workers into behaving themselves than to deal with the resulting protests when someone inevitably hears something they consider offensive. It is not, after all, the university's mission to prepare students for the real world.

  11. Guy said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 11:26 am

    @J W Brewer

    These rules don't seem any different than what I would expect for construction at an ordinary workplace. And if we're talking about catcalling, that really shouldn't be permitted anywhere, but in the case of a university (or workplace) it could open the university/employer to liability under federal antidiscrimination law and quite possibly sink the contract.

  12. The Philadelphianist said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    "Operational campus environment" — an example of nerdview, perhaps?

  13. GH said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen:
    Because second-hand smoke is both noxious and obnoxious.

    If, as Sam says, the phrasing is common within the construction industry, and the sign directs itself to construction workers, then any "nerdview" it may embody is irrelevant, since the "nerds" are the audience.

  14. Sybil Shaver said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    @Anscel Schaffer-Cohen: at many colleges, smoking is prohibited throughout the whole campus. That is true where I teach.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    If the goal of the sign is merely to remind the workers they should observe the same norms they'd observe at a non-campus construction site, it's quite oddly worded. If the campus has different regulations for outdoor smoking than you would expect elsewhere, I guess that makes sense to have a sign for, although that's a bizarre and illiberal aspect of 21st century university culture I have trouble understanding. It's been barely three decades since I took a credit-for-linguistics-major seminar on Native American language use and literary something-or-other that paused each week at the one-hour mark for a smoke break with the professor. (Not actually at the table we sat around discussing modes of orality in Apache discourse or whatever – the class met in the parlor of an old Victorian house that had come into the possession of the Anthropology department, and we went out onto the porch to smoke.)

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    Of course "No Improper Conduct" is a comparatively bizarre thing for a sign to say in any context, since improper conduct is presumably always and everywhere proscribed whether or not there is a sign. The problem is that what conduct is considered improper may vary by context and location, so a sign that doesn't actually tell you what conduct that might be ok in a different location is not ok in the particular location provides little useful information.

    [(myl) See this post for a discussion of the mysterious semantics of "Authorized Personnel Only"…]

  17. E said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    The hard hats are on another sign (the hazards and safety board).

    Construction workers are presumed to swear in greater frequency than the general population, and since this sign was put up by the construction company themselves, one can only assume that for these construction workers, it is true. People swear everywhere but the acceptable limits of swearing vary in different social settings.

  18. Simon Spero said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    FYSA, this is a non-permissive environment, but should be treated as a "weapons free school zone" ,and not a "weapons free" school zone.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 4:53 pm

    What a bizarre sign.

    But the primary motivation? Catcalling.

    I hope so, but why can't they bring themselves to spell it out in that case? Why do they mention swearing instead?

    If the campus has different regulations for outdoor smoking than you would expect elsewhere, I guess that makes sense to have a sign for, although that's a bizarre and illiberal aspect of 21st century university culture I have trouble understanding.

    Part of it is American anxiety: better ban it everywhere just to be sure. (There's no such thing as global university culture. Not every university even has such a thing as a campus!)

    Another part, however, is the belated realization that smoke doesn't immediately vanish just because it's outdoors. If you walk 20 m behind a smoker, you'll be in the smoke cloud the whole time till the cigarette is finished, and you'll notice – unless you're a smoker yourself and your sense of smell is down the drain. Until recently, all important people have been active or passive smokers, or so it seems to me.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 4:55 pm

    I forgot my linguistic question!

    should be treated as a "weapons free school zone" ,and not a "weapons free" school zone

    What do you mean? A weapons-free-school zone (a zone belonging to a weapons-free school) as opposed to a weapons-free school zone (a school zone that is weapons-free)? I'm confused.

  21. hector said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    If a carpenter hits his finger with a hammer, he's going to swear. If an electrician gets a shock, they're going to swear. From everything I've seen heard, and personally experienced, these are axiomatic statements.

    I suppose the sign might have some effect on the volume of the outbursts.

  22. D.O. said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I guess you are overthinking it. Sometimes authorities feel a need to remind their underlings to behave themselves.

  23. Sam said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    Swearing under your breath because you hit your finger with a hammer is one thing, I think the kind of thing they are asking their staff to refrain from would be shouting across the whole quad, "HEY MIKE WHEN THE FUCK IS THAT GODDAMN SHIPMENT SHOWING UP????" as they might at a regular construction site.

    The exact words on the sign aren't that important, which is why they have weasel-y statements like "improper conduct". The sign just communicates, "Hey, remember that you are in someone else's house – behave accordingly."

    Also, "a bunch of professors and academics will be watching everything you do and talking about it on blogs, so make a good impression." ;)

  24. Simon Spero said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

    David: "Weapons Free" authorizes engagement with any target not positively identified as friendly…

  25. Tom Gadd said,

    September 28, 2016 @ 11:49 pm

    Perhaps you've never seen a student written up for swearing because it's a straightforward infringement of first amendment rights, though this is more binding if you're at a public college.

  26. Ray said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 12:11 am

    this sign is hilarious. as if college students, faculty, and staff don't already do all those things every day, in public, on campus. hashtag stereotypical.

  27. Zack said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 4:33 am

    We used to live across the road from a construction site where a house was being built. The workers used to frequently shout out the word "cunt" so loud we could even hear it inside our house; they appeared to use it as a form of address for each other. My wife found having to listen to them yelling that word all day somewhat discomforting.

    Now, this was in Australia, and I don't know how similar the linguistic habits of American construction workers are to those of their Australian cousins; but, maybe that sort of language forms part of the motivation behind the "NO SWEARING" sign.

  28. Anonymous Coward said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    So it's like the old Soviet joke: An inspection was expected at a Soviet plant to award it the Quality Mark, so the administration prohibited the usage of mat. On the next day the productivity dropped abruptly. People's Control figured out the reason: miscommunication. It turned out that workers knew all the tools and parts only by their mat-based names: khuyovina, pizdyulina, khuynyushka, khuyatina, etc. (all of these are loosely translated as "thing"); the same went for technological processes: otkhuyachit (to detach, cut, disconnect), zayebenit (to push through, force into), prikhuyachit (to attach, connect, bond, nail), khuynut (to move slightly, throw, pour), zakhuyarit (to throw far away, to put in deeply) etc.

  29. Chris C. said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 5:41 pm

    "Zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol" sounds like no campus in my experience.

  30. Francis Boyle said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    The 'offensively sexual' meaning of 'improper' may be a euphemism but it is one sanctified by ancient use. I'd like to imagine the foreman on the site reprimanding a cat-calling worker with "Now Chuck, that was most improper" said of course in an impeccable upper class Victorian English accent.

  31. Terry Hunt said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    Aside from the unusual (and now explained) term "operational campus environment", I see nothing remarkable about the sign.

    In my penultimate job, I was part of a Facilities Maintenance team on a large (pharmaceutical) manufacturing and administrative site. As contractors on a client company's premises, working amongst its staff (and their visitors and potential clients), we were required by our employer to follow all of the stipulations on the sign in the photo (though commercial, it had a site-wide smoking ban bar one designated smoking shed) – if you annoy or embarrass your hosts by bad behaviour, you risk losing your contract to a competitor when it comes up for renewal, regardless of whether the host's personnel don't always meet the same standards: this is normal business practice.

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