University of Michigan President, faculty, and administration go on record opposing faculty who refuse to write recommendations for students for political reasons

There’s good news from state universities today:

I reported recently that John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan (UM), refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student because she was applying to study in Israel. (Cheney-Lippold adheres to the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement [BDS] against Israel).

Cheney-Lippold had originally agreed to write the student a letter, and then changed his mind when he found out the student wanted to go to Israel, so his “letter deplatforming” wasn’t a refusal based on poor qualifications. In fact, he offered to write her letters for non-Israeli programs. He just didn’t want to help her study in a country he despised.

That struck me as an unconscionable dereliction of academic duty: the injection of personal sentiments into student mentorship in a way that actually hurt the student. So I wrote a letter to the President of the University of Michigan, to Cheney-Lippold’s chairperson (copied to him), and to all the trustees of the University of Michigan. I’ve had a few responses from University officials, but the one that meant the most came just a while ago. It was from a representative of UM’s Office of Public Affairs. I won’t name the person as it’s not necessary, but the response is kosher.

The upshot is that both the UM President and the Faculty Senate have, within the last ten days, issued three statements decrying the injection of political views into student letters of recommendation. I suspect this means that Cheney-Lippold and others like him can no longer refuse to write letters for students wanting to work in one or another place that the professor doesn’t like. Of course, professors can just give a blanket refusal without tendering a reason, which is surely what will happen.

Anyway, here’s part of the letter I got from the UM representative. The emphases are mine:

At the University of Michigan, we believe that injecting personal views into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution. In this particular situation, the student has asked that we respect this as a private matter.

President Schlissel underscored this position during a public Board of Regents meeting Sept. 20 when he said, clearly and emphatically, “The University of Michigan strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

“The academic aspirations of our students – and their academic freedom – are fundamental to the University of Michigan, and our teaching and research missions,” the president said. “We are committed as an institution to support our students’ academic growth.

“The regents, executive officers and I have been deeply engaged in this matter. We will be taking appropriate steps to address this issue and the broader questions it has raised.”

The University of Michigan, like other institutions and employers, keeps personnel matters private. But I want to assure you that we take issues related to support for our students with the utmost seriousness.

Also, earlier this week the executive arm of our Faculty Senate approved a “Statement on Letters of Reference,” stating, in part, that “faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide such a letter.” You can read more about this action here.

The university has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education. No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a stance that departs from this long-held university position.

President Schlissel’s full statement on this matter as well as previous university statements opposing any boycott of Israeli academic institutions can be found on the university’s website here.

The President’s statement and the UM’s position are given below (click on screenshot if you want to go to the page):

UM has long refused to engage in academic boycotts, so the last half of the letter is old news. But the first bit about “support for students” (read: letters of recommendation) is new. And the President’s letter is clearly aimed directly at Cheney-Lippold.

As the representative mentioned, a further resolution on this issue was approved last Monday by a faculty committee; this is reported by the University Record, a UM news site, in the following article (click on screenshot):

And the new resolution (my emphasis):

The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs approved a resolution Monday declaring faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and when to provide letters of recommendation.

The resolution came out of SACUA’s discussion of a U-M faculty member’s recent refusal to provide a previously promised letter of recommendation for a student because she was seeking to study abroad in Israel.

The discussion took place in executive session.

President Mark Schlissel said last week that the faculty member’s view does not reflect the position of U-M nor any department or unit on campus, and he reiterated the university strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

In SACUA’s statement on letters of reference, which was unanimously approved, SACUA affirmed its commitment to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Professional Ethics, noting the following section related to a professor’s educational responsibilities:

“As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students,” the section reads. “They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit.

“They respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students. They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from them. They protect their academic freedom.”

In their resolution, SACUA members said, “Within the guidelines set forth by the American Association of University Professors, and ‘demonstrate(ing) respect for students,’ faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide such a letter.”

SACUA is the nine-member executive arm of the university’s central faculty governance system, which also includes the Senate Assembly and the Faculty Senate.

So now we have a policy where there was none before. And it’s a good one.

I know that several readers of this site wrote letters or called the University, and that the school had also gotten some negative publicity in the press over Cheney-Lippold’s actions. I don’t know if our letters had any influence on the policy, but surely all the negative press publicity did. Thanks to everyone who wrote in, and realize that letters can sometimes make a difference. I suspect Cheney-Lippold’s tuchas is smarting a bit this week!

28 Comments

  1. Posted September 28, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    That should help the KKK in recruiting employees.

    • BJ
      Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Not accusing you of anything. Just not sure what you meant by this comment. Could you clarify?

      • Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        My point is that there are groups whose views and purposes are so bad that no professor should be forced to communicate with, send letters to or assist in any way.

        Asking for a letter by a student directed to such an organization should disqualify the student from having letters sent on his behalf anywhere.

        A professor has the right to decide whether or not a student deserves a letter not just by academics. The organization already has the transcripts and knows about his grades and activities. The letter is based on personal opinions of the professor of the student.

        • Posted September 28, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          What would this letter be composed of,
          …this student would be a valued asset to the KKK, he/she has shown… strong values of bigotry, exceptional hate, white supremacy tendencies. Looks good in hooded robes, excellent cross burning skills.
          hmmm… i think we’re done with that. If this hypothetical student wanted to join any outlier (in whatever) for further studies i doubt they would be asking for a letter to do that, imho.

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

            I agree. I was just using the KKK as an extreme example to make a point. I could have picked other group s. The North Korean Army or the KGB.
            Unless there is something in the professor’s conteact requiring him to write letters I think it is a personal matter and choice of the professor. For any reason. Period

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            To answer your question the letter would say the same thing all such letters say. The student worked hard, come go class and participated and I think he would be be an excellent employee. I think you will be happy if you hire him.

            Something more or less like the about. Usual stuff.

        • BJ
          Posted September 28, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          Interesting point. I’d have to think a lot about how to respond to such an extreme example and how to decide where the line would be drawn.

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

            It is a tough question. Who decides if the group is an outlier group. Should the university publish a list. All organizations and states, or most of them, have offices and employees. I am not as sure of the answer as my comment would indicate or appear.

            • Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

              It’s an easy question. A professor has a duty to provide fair and truthful feedback about his students. It is, in Jerry’s phrase, says a dereliction of duty to refuse to do so. I don’t know if Jerry agrees with my hardcore stance, but I cannot see why a supervisor should not be responsible for providing fair and unbiased feedback about his students under all circumstances.

              • Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

                Under your view he has an obligation to never refuse to write a letter in response to a request.

                That is a fair position.

          • eric
            Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            Employment and study abroad decisions are not high-regret decisions. The employer is perfectly capable of finding out on their own – either through background investigation or through on-the-job conduct – that the person is a Klansman bigot…and then firing them, if that’s their choice.

            And, on the other hand, if said klansman didn’t go to public protests, doesn’t have an internet trail, and behaves perfectly decently on the job/scholarship, then there is no reason to fire them.

            So, I think the professor should stick to giving his/her opinion about the student’s professional qualifications. If the employer/program administrator comes back with a question about the student’s character, then absolutely that professor should answer it forthrightly and honestly. But let the person’s background be between them and their employer. Unless you want conservative professors outing gays, trans people, and former strippers in every job recommendation?

            • BJ
              Posted September 29, 2018 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              I think you misunderstood what Old Guy was trying to say (or maybe I did…?). I interpreted his post as saying that this policy would force a professor to write a letter for a student who wanted to go study WITH the KKK.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted September 28, 2018 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          Wasn’t the focus of the letters on further study and academic institutions.

          If the KKK managed to set up and run a valid academic institution your point may actually have some point.
          But, unless I read the letters wrongly, I didn’t see anything that makes your comment relevant to the point.

          • Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

            It is relevant to the point I was lmaking. Maybe not go the point if the letters. I don’t think we are limited to one point in an open thread.

            • BJ
              Posted September 29, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

              Now that eric above has given his opinion, I’m confused on which of us is correct in our understanding of what you were trying to say with your original post: were you implying that this policy would force professors to write letters for students who are KKK members, but are otherwise excellent students and have never shown to be anything but kind and diligent in the campus environment? Or were you implying that this would force professors to write letters for students who wished to go work for the KKK? I thought it was the latter.

              • Posted September 29, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                You are correct t. I thought it would force professors to write letters to LKK or other extreme groups.

      • Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        My comments have nothing to do with Israel.

      • Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        He means that a professor should have the right to lie about his students. He won’t say so in so many words, but if he says “sure I’ll write a letter giving my opinion of you but only if you apply where I approve of otherwise I will damn you with silence” that is operationally what he is saying.

        • Posted September 28, 2018 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

          That is a ridiculous twist on what I said.

  2. BJ
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Just as with the last post, I must commend these administrators (and, in this case, the Board of Regents, for their courage and backbone in refusing to give in to politically driven denials of students’ educational experiences. Very impressed. I hope these two cases are indications of a sea change among the administrators of colleges and universities in general.

  3. Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I received a similar email today from U-M Inquiry relaying the university’s mission to oppose any boycott of Israel. I think small messages help.

  4. rickflick
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good thing. Student merit should be the primary guide. As pointed out above, there are ways around this guideline, but at least there is now something on the books when you need to point to something.

  5. Wayne Y Hoskisson
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    If John Cheney-Lippold were a man of great integrity I would think he would have resigned from UM since they support a position so opposed to his position on BSD. UM seems to be taking the right course by airing this incident publicly and refraining from firing Cheney-Lippold. The problem for Cheney-Lippold is not that he refused to write a letter of recimmendation but that he gave a reason that is incongruous with the values of UM. Cheney-Lippold managed to kick himself in the ass while the victim is the student.

    • eric
      Posted September 28, 2018 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      If Professor Cheney-Libbold ever leaves UM, the poetic justice thing to do would be for the President (and Provost, and his Department chair, etc.) to refuse to give him a positive review, citing their disagreement with his choice to support BDS.

      • Posted September 28, 2018 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        Nice example. We all agree this would harm him professionally, right? And it would in effect be lying about him. If he is a great researcher say then he is and it’s a form lying to deny him a reference. This is why I argue that one poster above is in effect arguing supervisors should be allowed to lie.

        • Posted September 28, 2018 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

          Never argued that anyone should lie. That is a clever twist on what I said. I will give you that.

        • BJ
          Posted September 29, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          Can we stop lying about what posters are saying? That seems like a good policy.

    • Posted October 26, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      If I were the student, I’d have immediately gone to ask another professor. What good would be a letter of recommendation from such a …?


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