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The University of Michigan Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs convened Monday to vote on endorsing the Big Ten Voting Challenge and discuss updates to the external review of the University’s sexual misconduct policies with University President Mark Schlissel. Members also debated the controversy surrounding a University professor who rescinded a letter of recommendation for political reasons for a student applying to study abroad in Israel.

The Big Ten Voting Challenge began as part of a University initiative to increase student turnout, and is now a competition between the 14 Big Ten schools to achieve the highest turnout rate in the 2018 midterm elections. After a protracted discussion, the committee approved the endorsement resolution. Some SACUA members, however, expressed concerns that endorsing the challenge, which has been endorsed by all 19 schools and colleges within the University, would send an unduly partisan message. While SACUA member Bill Schultz, a professor of engineering, agreed with SACUA chair Neil Marsh that the endorsement “seems pretty uncontroversial,” Schultz said it wouldn’t be taken that way by everyone.

“One of our major parties would like to encourage students to vote and one would like to discourage students from voting in their own way,” Schultz said. “I just don’t know that this couldn’t be another slight thing that is going to raise eyebrows if we support this. I think we should, but I think it isn’t as non-partisan as we would like it to be. I think this is relatively uncontroversial, but it will be viewed as a political act, I think, by many political views.”

The University frequenty draws ire from conservative bodies for its historically left-leaning politics: after President Donald Trumps victory in the 2016 general election, University president Mark Schlissel faced criticism for comments that seemed to disparage the election outcome.  

SACUA Vice Chair Joy Beatty, an associate professor of management studies at U-M Dearborn, expressed her disappointment that U-M Dearborn could not be included in the voting challenge since it was not technically a part of the Big Ten conference. Beatty also said despite members’ views on whether or not the endorsement was controversial, the issue could be avoided by voting not to endorse.

“The thing about not endorsing it is no one’s going to know we’re not endorsing it –– except for people who read The (Michigan) Daily,” Beatty said.

The assembly then shifted to discussion of sexual misconduct policies in relation to faculty and staff. In February, the University announced it would hire an unnamed outside firm to conduct a review of its sexual misconduct policies and the Office for Institutional Equity, which processes all complaints related to sexual misconduct within the University. The review is to be divided into two phases: one as a review of just the University’s written policies on sexual misconduct, and a second to evaluate examples of how those policies are carried out. Schlissel said at the meeting the reviewer did not “have any final comments to share,” but shared he expects the review would be complete by the end of the fall semester.

SACUA member Sami Malek, a professor of internal medicine, emphasized the degree to which faculty were unhappy with the current state of operations within the OIE.

“This is very important that we have somebody looking at it,” Malek said. “There’s a lot of disappointed people in the process.”

Last winter, The Daily reported on “The Whisper Network,” a crowdsourced database of sexual harassment and assault in higher education — incidents reported by and involving University faculty appeared more than a dozen times. 

“One thing to consider when looking at these cases is in any academic relationship there is a power dynamic,” Rackham student Nicole Bedera commented on the cases. “That’s exactly why the people who have sexually harassed the same people for years have been able to get away with it. 

The decision to conduct an external review of the University’s policies and procedures came shortly after revelations in the case of Larry Nassar, a doctor at Michigan State University. Nassar assaulted students and patients under the guise of medical treatments over the span of three decades and was aided by other MSU employees who failed to follow through on student reports of misconduct by Nassar and, in some cases, actively suppressed the reports.

While Schlissel acknowledged that since he had come into his role as president, there had been “a small number of individual cases” involving faculty misconduct, he said there was no valid comparison to the Nassar case.

“I don’t know how to categorize this as a ‘big’ problem, and to use the Nassar example, I thoroughly reject,” Schlissel said. “That person was committing sexual misconduct for 30 years. So, although we aspire to have every case done as perfectly as we can, to me there’s no analogy between a consistent handful of cases that come through OIE that faculty regrettably feel are unfairly run, and 30 years of sexual assault.”

Finally SACUA addressed the case of Prof. John Cheney-Lippold, who rescinded a letter of recommendation for a student’s study abroad application after learning the program took place in Israel; Cheney-Lippold is engaged in an academic boycott of the country. Shortly after news of the professor’s action became public, the University released a statement expressing disappointment in the professor’s decision, and Schlissel spoke against the boycott at last week’s Board of Regents meeting. 

“It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” the statement read. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

Expressing his desire to hear the “candid thoughts” of SACUA members, Schlissel moved the meeting into closed session. Following the meeting, Marsh released a statement from SACUA on the practice of writing students letters of reference, saying they wished “to draw the University community’s attention” to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Professional Ethics.

“As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students,” the AAUP’s statement 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.”

“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,” Marsh wrote in an email to The Daily.

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