My letter to the University of Michigan: why a professor can’t refuse to recommend students on the grounds of political disagreement

As I reported earlier today, John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan refused to write a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate to study in Israel—after first agreeing to do so and then finding out it was Israel. Cheney-Lippold subscribes to the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment movement (BDS) and thus considered withdrawing his offer to write as a demonstration of his personal ideology. In contrast, I considered this a dereliction of duty, not a demonstration of academic freedom. It hurts a student’s career, wishes, and prospects in order to supposedly preserve one’s ideological purity. It is one’s JOB as a faculty member to write letters for students.

I would write for any student that I felt I could support on academic grounds, regardless of where they wanted to study. I would, for example, gladly write a letter for a student to study in Palestine or even North Korea if that is what they wanted (I would, however, warn them about what might happen in North Korea!).

Accordingly, I have sent the letter below to The President of the University of Michigan, to the trustees, and to the chairman of Cheney-Lippold’s department, described as supportive of his stand. I am not asking for Cheney-Lippold to be fired, but for professors to be told to do their job. I’ve also copied one letter to Cheney-Lippold himself. The addresses of all these people are public, and I’ve put them below should you wish to tender your own opinion, whatever it may be.

Dear  ,

I have read in both the Washington Post and The Michigan Daily that associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold in the Department of American Culture has refused to write a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate student to study in Israel because the professor, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) initiative against Israel, feels that such a recommendation violates his political beliefs.

Dr. Cheney-Lippold is also a member of the American Studies Association that also supports the BDS. As far as I know, no department at the University of Michigan, nor the University itself, have formally endorsed BDS.

While Dr. Cheney-Lippold has every right to promulgate his support of BDS, and write about it as a faculty member or private citizen, I object strongly to his using his political beliefs to refuse accommodating a student who wishes to study in Israel. What he is doing is in fact hurting that student’s career in favor of his own politics, and this clearly abrogates his duties as a faculty member. His job is to help his student by writing recommendations—or, if he feels the student is unqualified for the position, to either refuse to write or let the student know that his letter won’t be supportive. The latter is clearly not the case here, as Cheney-Lippold offered to write other recommendations for the student.

What we have, then, is not a case of academic freedom, but a dereliction of duty.  Throughout my career I would write letters for students regardless of whether I agreed with the program for which they applied—unless I felt I could not write a strong letter on academic grounds. In the latter situation, I would inform them and let them choose whether they wanted me to write.

Imagine what would happen if a professor could refuse to recommend students because he or she didn’t agree with the politics or nature of the program to which the student applied. Many professors feel that America itself is a racist and imperialistic country. Could a professor then refuse to recommend a student for any program in America? Or for any job in law enforcement, given that many feel that American law enforcement is a bastion of structural racism? If a professor is an atheist, is it okay with the University of Michigan for that professor to refuse to recommend a student for study in a religious university or school of theology? One can think of many more examples, and where do you draw the line? When does it become okay to refuse to write letters for students on the grounds of one’s personal beliefs?

I have written a longer account of this issue on my website, which has over 56,000 subscribers: you can find that account here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/michigan-professor-rescinds-offer-to-write-student-a-letter-of-recommendation-after-he-discovers-it-was-for-study-in-israel/

So far the response of the University of Michigan to this clear dereliction of duty has been tepid. I would hope that you could impress on your faculty their need to fulfill their academic duties regardless of their personal beliefs, and tell them that refusing to help students advance their careers because that help violates one’s dislike of Israel—or any other country—is not a demonstration of academic freedom, but a violation of one’s contract with the University.

Cordially,
Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago

Sent to:

Alexandra Minna Stern, chair of American Culture, University of Michigan:  amstern@umich.edu

John Cheney-Lippold, Associate Professor, Dept. American culture: jchl@umich.edu

Mark Schlissel, President, The University of Michigan: 

Regents: University of Michigan:

Michael J. Behmmjbehm@umich.edu

Mark J. Bernstein: mjbern@umich.edu

Shauna Ryder Diggs: srdiggs@umich.edu

Denise Ilitch: dilitch@umich.edu

Andrea Fischer Newman: afnewman@umich.edu

Andrew C. Richner: richner@umich.edu

Ron Weiser: rnweiser@umich.edu

Katherine E. White: kewhite@umich.edu

 

30 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Another splendid contribution to Epistolary Lit, perfesser.

  3. Howard S Neufeld
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Jerry – Well said!
    Howie

  4. Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    A very fine letter.

  5. Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Well done. You’ve reminded me to write them too and stand in solidarity.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Excellent…

  7. dabertini
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Fist-pumping stuff from the master.

  8. yazikus
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    This letter (and the other post) have changed my mind. I thought I was ambivalent about it, but now see the danger of this precedent. Well said.

  9. GBJames
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    sub

  10. Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Bravo!

  11. Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    A good letter. That should shake them up!

    • Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Zero chance of that.

      • Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Are you saying our host is wasting his time with this letter? Surely the chance is not zero.

        • Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

          Why would it be a waste of time? Open letters are not just for the ostensible recipient; Jerry has changed one mind here already. Changing minds is not a waste. That truth has nothing to do with the nature of those running U of M.

          • Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            I will continue to hope that the student gets their letter of recommendation, but I acknowledge your point as well.

          • Posted September 20, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            I believe PCC’s direct yet eloquent letter will catch the attention of people who can do something about this travesty, namely Board of Regents members. He may not need to change anyone’s mind, just get some attention.

  12. eric
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I considered this a dereliction of duty, not a demonstration of academic freedom.

    Can’t it be both? He is using the freedom of his contractual position to avoid doing what is typically and very reasonably expected of a person in that position.

    Sorta like that football player the other day that refused to play football.

    Time to renegotiate the professor’s contract down. Or trade him.

    • Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      No it cannot. Look at the other examples I cited in my cother comment. Or consider a prof who refuses to teach between November and March, on the grounds of academic freedom. Academic freedom is about expressing ideas not shirking duties that are part of the job.

      • eric
        Posted September 20, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        I read’em. I’m still not entirely convinced. All of your examples involve the professor essentially lying. I.e. stating a false opinion about the student’s competence (or their paper’s quality). Yes I agree, a professor lying about those things is grounds for firing.
        [Not writing a letter] is not lying. Your examples would be analogous to writing a glowing recommendation, then demanding to have it back so he can write a worse one. He’s not doing that, he just doesn’t want to write it to begin with.

        A better analogy would be to a professor who says “don’t put my name on your paper when you submit it for publication.” Which can sting and might lower chances of publication, but which AFAIK is not something they could be fired for.

        I hope Jerry gets a positive response from the administration, but I don’t see how it could be anything other than a pyrrhic victory. So you compel this professor to write the student a letter of recommendation. If he/she doesn’t get the position, what next? Suing the professor for not (figuratively) clapping long enough?

  13. JezGrove
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Very well put!

  14. Steve Pollard
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Bravo. Very well said. I wish more people had your courage and clarity of expression

  15. Hempenstein
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve mentioned this story here before, but it’s worth repeating it re. this one. My colleague David Sidney Feingold (now still in the saddle at 96), who had reasonable fluency in something like six languages, enjoyed interviewing prospective medical students who claimed proficiency in one of the languages he knew.

    In comes an applicant who he greeted in German. The guy passed the initial test quite well and when questioned further on how he came to be so fluent it turned out that he had been in the US military, stationed in Germany, and he liked to spend as much time as possible with the German people, who, you know, had had it quite bad… And the war was all the Jews’ fault.

    When he wrote up his report he said he supposed everyone had a right to his own opinion, but he certainly wouldn’t recommend admission to anyone stupid enough to relate such views to someone named Feingold.

    • Diane G
      Posted September 21, 2018 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      Ha, great story!

  16. Posted September 20, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Would we allow a professor to reverse his approval of a dissertation, if he knew the student were moving to Israel? Would we allow a referee to rescind a recommendation to publish if he learned 5he author were moving to Israel? Would we let a professor change a grade?
    I think he should be fired. Pour encourager les autres.

  17. rickflick
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I am eager to lean what kind of reaction you get.

    • Posted September 20, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      I’ll put up any responses I get. I already got one from his chair. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ll just say it’s “unsatisfactory.”

  18. Taz
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    If writing this letter would violate his boycott of Israeli academic institutions, wouldn’t teaching an Israeli exchange student (who would receive credit at an Israeli university), also violate it?

  19. max blancke
    Posted September 20, 2018 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    So, is this regular, old fashioned antisemitism, or is this more about wanting to be like the cool kids, who all hate Israel?

  20. Posted September 21, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    My opinion on University Thoughts and Acts has been very high up till recent times.

    It would be great if more people had our host’s admirable clarity to observe and analyze situations. And also if more persons had the “courage” to speak up and try to rectify serious errors of judgement.

  21. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted September 22, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    This is pretty hypocritical given all the outrage over that theocratic justice of the peace in the south refusing to do her job which was to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. If we want to make sure that everyone does their job regardless of ideology, it seems fair to insist that apply to left and right equally.


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