Photo Credit: Screenshot
Professor John Cheney-Lippold

Dozens of organizations on Wednesday applauded the University of Michigan (UM) for its adoption of a Blue Ribbon Panel report that states that faculty should base decisions such as letters of recommendations and other academic judgments, “solely on educational and professional reasons,” never on politics.

The panel was established after University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold agreed to write a recommendation for a student and then reneged, admitting that his refusal was based solely on the fact that the recommendation was for a program in Israel. After denouncing Cheney-Lippold’s decision and announcing professional consequences for his behavior, UM President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert appointed the Panel to examine the issue more closely and establish professional recommendations for faculty.

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The Panel’s report states, “Faculty may not reward students because they are politically like-minded. Nor may faculty deprive students of equal opportunity and fair evaluation because they disagree politically. Nor may faculty help students pursue future educational and professional opportunities because they politically approve of the students’ aspirations, or refuse to help because they politically disapprove.”

The report also acknowledges limits on academic freedom, noting that some faculty members who thought that “any and all requirements to do things they do not want to do are invasions of academic freedom” were incorrect.

A letter initiated and coordinated by the AMCHA Initiative and signed by 85 religious, civil rights and higher education organizations, including the Academic Engagement Network, AEPi, Alums for Campus Fairness, ACTA, B’nai B’rith, California Association of Scholars, CAMERA, Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, Hasbara, Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, Iranian American Jewish Federation, National Council on Jewish Affairs, Rabbinical Alliance of America, Simon Wiesenthal Center and WoMen Fight Antisemitism, reads as follows:

Dear President Schlissel and Provost Philbert,

We heartily commend you for accepting the exceptionally thoughtful and thorough report and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel that you appointed last fall, specifically the core statement of principle that “as faculty members make judgements and act in their role as teachers, they must do so based solely on educational and professional reasons,” as well as your commitment to establishing clearly defined procedures for handling challenges to the core statement.

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?” 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.

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. Faculty who use their academic positions to implement an academic boycott of Israel, or to engage in any other type of ideologically-driven behavior, are impeding the educational rights of their students, blocking access to a body of knowledge critical for understanding a complex topic of global importance, and are in direct violation of UM’s new core statement of principles.

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.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned Organizations

Last September, when this controversy first unfolded, many of these same organizations immediately contacted Schlissel calling on him to sanction all UM professors who engage in similar discriminatory behavior, affirm that no UM student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel, and detail steps to ensure that faculty do not implement an academic boycott of Israel on campus.

In addition to curtailing student rights and educational opportunities, promotion of an academic boycott increases the risk of anti-Semitism on campus. Research conducted last year by AMCHA found schools with faculty who support an academic boycott of Israel are five times more likely to have acts of anti-Jewish aggression, including assault, harassment and vandalism.

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