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About 30 University of Michigan faculty, students and community members convened at Palmer Commons Wednesday afternoon to share their thoughts with the Blue Ribbon Panel. This panel, composed of six professors, was held to gather input on issues of academic freedom and faculty political ideology.
University Provost Martin Philbert created the panel but did not attend the meeting. He developed the panel in response to the ongoing controversy caused by two cases of faculty denying letters of recommendation for study abroad programs in Israel and the University’s resulting sanctions. In an open letter in October, Philbert and University President Mark Schlissel first announced the panel’s intention to view the intersection of political ideology and faculty responsibilities to students and affirmed the University’s position on the issue.
“We will work to make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support,” the letter reads.
In the opening statement of the event, panel member Deborah Ball, Education professor, clarified the panel is a recommending body and therefore not tasked with creating specific policy. She also specified the panel was not created to address particular cases or focus only on letters of recommendation. However, discussion of American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to deny LSA junior Abigail Ingber a letter of recommendation for a semester abroad in Israel dominated the panel.
Mark Thompson-Kolar, lecturer in the School of Information, discussed his experience with letters of recommendation as an instructor and suggested professors shouldn't decline to write a letter on the basis of ideology.
“[The situation] is not about necessarily blocking or writing a letter,” Thompson-Kolar said. “But it’s really about not giving those professors ideological leeway to deny a student who is otherwise fully equipped and qualified for the opportunity.”
LSA senior Robert Weinbaum shared the importance of letters of recommendation to students like him who are applying to graduate programs, emphasizing how crucial a letter from a close instructor could be to an application.
“Going into academia, letters of recommendation are extremely important to move forward,” Weinbaum said. “There’s certain people that not having a letter of recommendation from says more, is suspicious. Not having those letters could pretty much be a barrier.”
On the other side of the issue, Rackham student Canyon Bosler discussed the reservations instructors might have writing letters to institutions they do not agree with.
“It’s important recognizing that letters of recommendation are not only a service to the student…because [the other institution] has to make their decisions using your personal insight,” Bosler said. “So this is also a service directly to the institution that receives the letter…instructors may not be comfortable to be of such service.”
The Cheney-Lippold situation also brought the topic of identity to the forefront of discussion, as both Palestinian and Jewish students shared their experiences and fears with discrimination in the classroom and in academia at large. LSA junior Alex Harris broadened the conversation from letters of recommendation, commenting that every student should feel safe in the classroom.
“This is a values-based conversation,” Harris said. “I think I want to exist in a university where any student can pursue their academics, and where any student can feel comfortable to exist in the class.”
LSA senior Francis Misra expressed similar concerns. However, he focused on left-right political ideologies instead. He noted his difficulty in obtaining an unbiased political science education at the University, especially as a gay man.
“In class discussions, I’m told by my fellow students that it’s fascinating that a conservative can be gay,” Misra said. “Not once has a teacher stepped in and said this was inappropriate. I am massively disappointed by the education I’ve received as a political science major where class after class I have to come out, not as gay, but as a conservative.”
Other speakers mentioned resolutions at the U-M Dearborn and U-M Flint campuses that have been passed or are in the process of being passed asking for the Cheney-Lippold sanctions to be rescinded. One speaker, speaking under the pseudonym Rami Abdullah, was concerned the panel was thinking about the letters of recommendation incidents in terms of Palestinian and Jewish identities, rather a political critique of Israel.
"This conversation oftentimes is being taken to a question of identity, Israeli versus Palestinian," Abdullah said. "And my issue with that is it erases the colonialism context…the whole reason that these academic institutions are being boycotted isn't because they're real universities, it's because they play a role, including military technologies, surveillance technologies, incarceration technologies that is used in the military occupation of Palestine and the ongoing settlement of historic Palestine."
On this vein, Abdullah further noted that curriculum vitaes of panelists Deborah Lowenberg Ball and Deborah Goldberg mention ties with Israeli academic institutions. They also highlighted controversies the University is facing for its decisions, such as backlash from professional institutions and SACUA, claims of a lack of diversity on the Blue Ribbon Panel and the fact that this panel was unilaterally created by the provost.
Another speaker further challenged the panel, posing the question of how University administrators convey their political ideologies, especially when considering the University's financial investments.
Among the audience, there was additional hesitation. In his comments, University alum Jimmy Schneider voiced concerns that the panel could be used to defend University actions against Cheney-Lippold.
“In what way is this panel proving it is not just about justifying University censorship?” Schneider said. “Are you trying to retroactively recommend policy?”
Others were upset the panel did not respond to audience questions and were worried there was a lack of transparency on how audience feedback will be used when the panel makes recommendations on these issues.
After the panel, Ball clarified the format of the panel, explaining that this was a preliminary event designed only to collect feedback.
“We’re really in the middle of just trying to gain input, to see how people understand and really think about these issues, across a really wide range of people all across campus,” Ball said. “The purpose of the meeting was to listen. We’re just at the front-end…it actually wouldn’t be a very good thing if we already had fully formulated views.”
CORRECTION: This article has been edited to clarify the concerns about the panel from attendees of the event.