(May 17, 2019 / JNS) A letter signed by 85 religious, civil-rights and higher-education organizations was sent to University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel and provost Martin Philbert, applauding the university’s adoption of a Blue Ribbon Panel report stating that faculty should base decisions, such as letters of recommendations and other academic judgments, “solely on educational and professional reasons,” not on politics.
The panel was established after a professor, John Cheney-Lippold, agreed to write a recommendation for a student and then backtracked, acknowledging that his refusal was based solely on the fact that the recommendation was for a program in Israel.
Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the American Culture department, told JNS that this was the first time he rejected a student’s request for a letter of recommendation to study abroad anywhere, as he labeled Israel an “apartheid” nation.
After denouncing Cheney-Lippold’s decision and announcing professional consequences for his behavior, Schlissel and Philbert appointed the panel to examine the issue more closely and establish professional recommendations for faculty.
“While the panel was established in response to a particular incident regarding UM faculty members who, in compliance with an academic boycott of Israel, refused to write letters of recommendation for students wanting to study at a university-approved program in Israel, we are grateful that you framed the investigative question posed to the panel quite broadly, asking: ‘What ought to be the intersection between political thought/ideology and a faculty member’s responsibility to students?’” stated the letter.
“As you clearly understood, refusing to write letters of recommendation for students is just one of many ways that faculty members can privilege their own personal politics over the welfare of their students, and by so doing, not only harm their students but undermine the academic mission of the university,” it continued.
“This becomes particularly evident when faculty members choose to implement an academic boycott of Israel, whose official guidelines call on faculty to not only refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wanting to study abroad in Israel but to work towards shutting down the study abroad programs altogether; to attempt to cancel faculty and student-organized educational events and activities about Israel on their own campuses; and to work towards scuttling research collaborations between U.S. faculty and students and Israeli scholars.”
The letter concluded, “The adoption of this core statement of principles and your commitment to establishing explicit procedures for bringing forward concerns about faculty who violate it will make a significant and positive difference for the entire UM community. We hope that universities across the country will follow your lead and adopt their own version of this very important statement.”