Politics, Education and Letters of Recommendation

After controversy over professor who turned down student request for a recommendation because she planned to study in Israel, Michigan says faculty members should base such decisions "solely on educational and professional reasons," not on politics.

April 25, 2019
 
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In September, a University of Michigan professor refused to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a student hoping to study in Israel. The professor said he was abiding by the academic boycott of Israel and that his decision had nothing to do with the student's qualifications.

The professor's decision prompted a national debate: Do professors have an obligation to write such letters (on behalf of academically worthy students) or can politics influence the decision? While the spark for the debate was Israel, academic observers noted that the question could extend to other issues as well.

Would it be legitimate for a faculty member to refuse to write a letter to Liberty University because of its close ties to the Trump administration? Or to a university experiencing labor strife? Would professors be justified to refuse letters to students whose politics they opposed?

Michigan appointed a faculty panel to review the issues, and it came back with a recommendation -- now endorsed by the administration as well -- that politics should not be a factor in whether a professor writes a letter of recommendation.

"The panel’s recommendations center on a single core statement of principle, namely that as faculty members make judgments and act in their role as teachers, they must do so based solely on educational and professional reasons," says the faculty report. "The recommendation honors the dual rights and responsibilities of faculty members -- their fundamental rights to academic freedom as scholars and their concomitant responsibilities as teachers employed by an educational institution."

The report makes clear that the policy is not intended to say that faculty members can't make judgments that someone shouldn't be recommended for a program or hired as a graduate assistant. The key issue, the report says, is the rationale for the decision, and whether it is professional and not biased.

States the report, "We include 'professional reasons' to cover such everyday and legitimate actions as these: declining to hire a qualified and intellectually gifted student for lab work because they are chronically late or routinely lose valuable specimens; declining to write a letter of recommendation because one is too busy or does not know the student well enough or think they are qualified for the position. Sometimes it is appropriate to explain to students the grounds on which one declines to do such things, but sometimes it is not. There is plenty of room for discretion in exercising one’s educational and professional judgment. 'Discretion' here does not mean that anything goes; it means making a reasoned judgment on the basis of the range of relevant or appropriate reasons."

The report states that the panel intentionally wanted to focus on what is appropriate, rather than trying to define "political." The report stresses that faculty members are free to mention their political views in class, to be politically active in society and to exercise their rights generally. The area of concern is bias.

"Faculty may not reward students because they are politically like-minded," the report says. "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."

Many examples are given in the report -- and the examples illustrate points of fairness and do not touch on the politics of the Middle East.

"Whether the student grew up in your hometown, shares your taste in music and other such idiosyncratic matters are also out of bounds as reasons for treating a student differently," the report says.

The report acknowledges that there may be cases that can't be anticipated today that may not fall into the panel's framework, and suggests faculty committees be available to review such cases. But generally, the report says, political concerns should not be part of the equation.

The faculty report also specifies that graduate students -- when they interact with undergraduates -- should be governed by these principles.

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in American culture and digital studies, is the professor whose refused to write the letter for the student seeking to study in Israel. He did not respond to an email seeking his comment on the new policy at Michigan.

Nor did the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. That group had issued a statement last year backing Cheney-Lippold and saying that "a letter of recommendation is not a right but is written at the discretion of faculty members. Professors, like any other individual, are entitled to hold firm positions on a matter of conscience and act in regard with those principles."

Hans-Joerg Tiede, the American Association of University Professors' associate secretary, noted that the AAUP, together with other college groups and student groups, in 1967 developed the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. The statement says that "student performance should be evaluated solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards."

"The recommendation of the blue ribbon panel at the University of Michigan seems to be to extend that principle to other areas of faculty-student interaction," Tiede said. "The AAUP has not taken a specific position on extending the Statement on Rights and Freedoms in that manner. The association does recognize that principles of professional ethics, such as those that relate to the evaluation of students, place limits on academic freedom."

The Michigan report acknowledges that there are limits on academic freedom. While some faculty members the panel talked to "seem to imagine that any and all requirements to do things they do not want to do are invasions of academic freedom," the report says, such a view is incorrect.

One member of the Michigan panel dissented from its recommendations. Deborah Goldberg, the Margaret B. Davis Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Michigan, wrote that the vision in the report was "too absolute with very little room for reasoned faculty judgment."

"The university generally should expect that faculty will prioritize student autonomy in such cases," Goldberg writes. "Faculty nevertheless should have the right to refuse to promote student educational aspirations that go against their own ethical and moral commitments, as long as those commitments are based on well-reasoned judgments and are not discriminatory based on individual identity. Thus, it could be appropriate for a faculty member to refuse to sponsor a student research project that the faculty believes is unethical (but is still in accordance with university rules) or to write a letter of recommendation to an organization or institution the faculty member believes is unethical. Even in such cases, however, faculty still have responsibilities to the student. First, is the educational responsibility to help the student understand the reasoning and evidence that led to that stand of conscience and why it justifies their action in not supporting the student. Second, is to help the student find alternatives to mitigate any harm to their educational goals; for example, refer them to other potential research mentors, professional sponsors or letter writers. For the latter, writing a 'to whom it may concern' letter to be placed on file at the Career Center is also an option."

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