UM faculty senate says recommendations should be choice of faculty

The University of Michigan’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) reaffirmed its commitment to the defense of academic freedom and the rights and responsibilities of academic tenure.

ANN ARBOR, MI – With individuals and organizations from across the country weighing in on a University of Michigan faculty member’s decision to rescind a recommendation for a student hoping to study in Israel, its faculty senate believes decision to write any letter must remain the right of the author.

UM’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs issued a statement Monday, Oct. 22, reaffirming “its commitment to the defense of academic freedom and the rights and responsibilities of academic tenure.”

“SACUA reasserts its commitment to the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Statement of Professional Ethics, which stresses that a faculty member’s evaluation of a student’s merit should be the primary concern in providing letters of recommendation and to the Association’s assertion that faculty members ‘have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom,'” the statement reads.

SACUA’s letter came in response to a letter from the AAUP, which urged the university and President Mark Schlissel to “act with restraint” as it examines faculty members’ responsibilities to students. The AAUP and other organizations have sounded off following the university’s decision to suspend a merit pay increase for John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at UM.

The university has also frozen his sabbatical eligibility for two years, until the fall of 2020. Cheney-Lippold had scheduled a sabbatical for the winter 2019 and will now have to wait until fall of 2020 to take it.

The AAUP’s letter to Schlissel urged the university to rescind the sanctions against Cheney-Lippold, noting that it did not follow the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The regulations require that charges that may lead to the imposition of severe sanctions should be preceded by an informal inquiry conducted by a duly constituted faculty committee charged with determining whether proceedings for imposing sanctions should be undertaken.

SACUA’s statement notes its members are concerned that a “widely circulated” discipline letter issued by UM College of Literature, Science and the Arts interim Dean Elizabeth Cole “may have a chilling effect on members of the academic community who may, for legitimate and deeply held personal reasons, feel uncomfortable about providing letters to certain organizations or individuals.”

“Such discomfort is fully in accord with the principle of intellectual integrity that is the core of academic freedom and does not represent ‘exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students,’ which is deprecated by the AAUP,” SACUA’s statement said.

As a result, SACUA’s statement notes that faculty members should not have to fear reprisal for declining to write a letter.

“To the extent that any member of our academic community feels coerced into providing a recommendation letter, or stating opinions that he or she does not believe, the integrity of the recommendation is tarnished and the academic freedom that is central to our university is impugned,” the statement reads.

After previously agreeing to write a student a letter of recommendation to study at Tel Aviv University, Cheney-Lippold told the student in an email in September that he was taking part in an academic boycott against Israel, and could no longer provide the recommendation.

Cheney-Lippold said that after looking over the student’s request, he needed to rescind his initial support, noting that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.”

Cheney-Lippold told the student he would be available to write any other letters for the student in the email. He also later clarified in an email to The Ann Arbor News that he should have said “many university professors have pledged an academic boycott against Israel,” rather than university departments.

Since Cheney-Lippold’s decision to rescind the letter of recommendation, the Washington Post reported that a graduate student instructor declined to recommend a second student who was applying to a study-abroad program in Israel. The teaching assistant said her decision wasn’t personal, but was born of a pledge to “boycott Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”