The Unappointed Advisory Committee on Academic Freedom held a panel discussion and general assembly on Tuesday evening to discuss the history of noncompliance, divestment and boycott at the University of Michigan in an effort to contextualize the recent disciplining of Prof. John Cheney-Lippold and Graduate Student Instructor Lucy Peterson’s refusal to write an academic recommendation for a student to study abroad in Israel. The panelists were introduced by Deirdre de la Cruz, director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, who emphasized the teach-in as an analysis of the current moment, not a debate. The second part of the event featured a workshop for developing policy recommendations for the University.
“This event is first and foremost a proactive, student-generated response to the administration’s call to gather input from stakeholders across the University, and its primary objective is to gain insights and recommendations from a diverse, multidisciplinary, intergenerational and multi-ranked community for our provost panel’s consideration,” De la Cruz said.
The first panelist, Howard Brick, professor in the Department of History, provided a brief overview of political regulation at the University in the 20th century. He noted the American Association of University Professors’ declaration of principles on academic freedom and academic tenure in relation to the University’s history with social activism. Brick highlighted the precarity of the AAUP’s 1970 revision of the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, explaining how many components are undefined of what constitutes academic freedom versus violation.
“The point was not to avoid controversy, but in fact, the 1970 statement said that the scholar could be controversial and polemical provided he or she was being so for the sake of facing scholarship,” he said.
Brick considered periods in which the University repressed faculty based on social or political views, drawing from war periods and the Cold War. He compared these to the social issues faced today on campus and the AAUP’s letter statement.
“It may be a little discomforting to recognize that oddly enough, the question of whether one has the right to deny a letter of recommendation on grounds other than solely merit,” he said. “It turns up here in the letter, in the context, of course, we would not approve regarding the disciplining of a student, which only shows how these questions of academic freedom are so fraught and dependent on context, and not fixed by nature as an absolute.”
The second panelist, Chandler Davis, was a University professor in the ’50s and was given a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee along with three other U-M faculty for being branded a communist. Davis refused to answer HUAC questions, pleading the First Amendment in the hopes of being convicted and appealing the case to the Supreme Court to protest against the government-sponsored anti-communist campaign. Davis was ultimately fired from the University, lost his appeal to the Supreme Court and served a six-month sentence in prison.
“Any faculty member refusing to answer questions before the red hunter committees created a presumption of unfitness, I summarize the plight administrators face this way: They hoped there were no reds on the faculty, they hoped nobody would ask them if they were, but if the inquisitors obliged them to fire a red they would go along wholeheartedly,” Davis said.
The third speaker, Alan Wald, a professor emeritus of American Culture and English, compared his social activism as a professor in the ’70s and ’80s against apartheid in South Africa and that of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in regard to Israel. According to Wald, both movements focused on economic targeting and have a history of colonization at the root of the problem. He also acknowledged the implications and history of the oppression of Jewish people searching for survival upon coming to Israel, and explained how discourse at the University is vital to understanding the multifaceted issue.
“I’ve heard it mentioned that everybody supported the anti-apartheid struggle,” Wald said. “That’s as misleading as imagining that the beginning of the movement against the war in Vietnam that everybody supported it. The battle for divestment from apartheid went on for close to 20 years, day in and day out for the core activists and U-M was far behind many universities. Class time was repeatedly devoted to discussing these issues, we didn’t have Facebook or email.”
Wald explained how the University regents at the time supported the Sullivan Principles, which were developed by Reverend Leon Sullivan and were designed to apply economic pressure to South African corporations, but were later abandoned by Sullivan himself for not being effective. He likened this to the current state of campus, and projected possible outcomes from the BDS movement.
“There’s a fragile calm over this campus on the current situation, which is really just outrageous that the administration would intervene against these colleagues in this matter,” he said. “Trying to carry out U-M policy against discrimination and academic freedom in Palestine, we have that right.”
Melissa Phruksachart, a collegiate postdoctoral fellow in LSA, presented how the University upholds Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives in the current political climate. She criticized Kenneth Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, for wielding not widely-used definitions of anti-Semitism.
“The University’s fear of a Title VI complaint of anti-Semitism is definitely something to keep as mind, despite the fact that students who identify as Palestinian, Muslim, Arab or anyone racialized in that way probably have numerous grounds for making their own title six complaints,” Phruksachart said. “The stark asymmetry highlights the purposeful disappearance of Palestinian existence and Palestinian knowledge from the op-ed pages, from the law, and from the University. This is in part why I am less convinced by the liberal rhetoric of academic freedom and inclusion, which, if properly operating, treats Nazi economists, white supremacist geneticists and scholars of settler colonialism as equal parties entitled to protection.”
Omer Sharir, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, talked about his personal experience as an Israeli, both in his time at University and in his personal activism. He posed the challenges that U.S. and Israeli universities face with the BDS movement.
“As long as we limit our extent of the conception of academic freedom to the confined of existing academic institutions, we are guilty of compliciting in the structure of white supremacy in the institutions themselves,” Sharir said. “The biggest roadblock to Palestinians right to academic freedom continues to be their exclusion from political self determination. Only when this roadblock is removed can Israeli universities hope to exchange the academic debate with their Palestinian colleagues, on equal footing rather than as patrons of Western civilizations.”
The last presenter, 2017 LSA graduate Nicole Khamis, spoke on her experience as student founder of the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program and as a supporter of #UMDivest. Khamis explained how the University was largely intolerant to the possibility of even investigating divesting, and many students are not well versed in the conflict.
“At times being here on campus was a very hopeless kind of experience because you would talk with people and people just aren’t interested in having these really hard discussions about the fact that our university is implicated in a conflict that has killed thousands and created the largest protracted refugee situation in the world,” she said.
Public health graduate student Melissa Makled came to the event because of initial interest following Peterson’s denial to write an academic recommendation. Makled explained how they didn’t feel the University has taken enough action.
“I didn’t have a super clear idea of what the event was going to be, but I’ve been getting email updates about the letters and I’ve been following that because it’s something personally and politically important to me,” they said. “I’m interested to see where the University goes with this, because I’ve been unimpressed with the University’s response, and I really liked the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s response. I really liked the nuance in their stance because they say it’s not a political decision, but a matter of academic freedom.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misquoted Dr. Phruksachart. We regret the error.