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Rackham Graduate School hosted a town hall to garner graduate student feedback about a Blue Ribbon Panel report on Monday. The report addressed the question put forth by University Provost Martin A. Philbert: “What ought to be the intersection between political thought/ideology and a faculty member’s responsibility to students?” The question and report followed last fall’s controversy of faculty rescinding recommendation letters for study abroad programs held in Israel and the University’s sanctions in response. 

Sociology professor Sandra Levitsky opened the town hall by summarizing the recommendation letter rescindment and sanctions controversy and why the Blue Ribbon Panel was created. 

“What the controversy really revealed is that the University of Michigan actually has no policy in place that governs situations of this kind that could offer clear guidance about what to do in this type of situation,” Levitsky said. “What should we do when a faculty acting on his or her perceived freedom of political thought conflicts with the freedom of another person? What should we do when the exercise of faculty freedom of thought conflicts with faculty responsibilities to students?”

After gathering feedback from over 1,100 students through an anonymous form and holding four two-hour listening sessions at University campuses, the panel published its report on March 21, 2019 which included a Statement of Principle, stating faculty-student interactions “must be based solely on educational and professional reasons.” Levitsky explained that faculty need relevant and appropriate reasons to decline students letters of recommendations or research and lab work. Additionally, faculty should not treat students differently if they share or do not share similar political ideologies. 

“The report notes that faculty should not help students pursue educational or professional opportunities because they approve of that student’s politics,” Levitsky said. “And again, they can’t refuse to help because they politically disapprove. Finally, the report reminds us that it has never been the case that academic freedom is absolute. This is actually true for all freedoms in this country. No freedom is absolute.” 

The report explained the University has a responsibility to maintain academic integrity by treating faculty equally when it comes to political ideologies as well. 

“The report emphasizes that just as a faculty member cannot justify treating a student badly because of disagreements about political views, so too the University cannot treat a faculty member badly because of disagreements about political views,” Levitsky said. “Nor may the University make decisions based on pressure from outside the University, something that was an issue in the case last year.”

Following Levitsky’s overview, the eight attending graduate students had a moderated, confidential discussion about how the guidelines would impact them both as students and as graduate student instructors. Rackham assistant dean Ethriam Brammer said the purpose of the Rackham’s town hall was to hear how the report and policies would impact graduate students specifically.

Graduate students, Brammer said, have a dynamic position on campus because they are students but often employees as well. Because of this, the report and proposed policies would affect them in multiple positions. 

“They have multiple roles, it’s multi-faceted,” Brammer said. “In the case of writing letters of recommendation, for example, they’ll both need letters of recommendation to continue in their career, but they’ll often be asked to write letters of recommendation. We’re hoping that the graduate students are clear on what the principles are from the Blue Ribbon report, how that impacts them on their day to day responsibilities, but most importantly to see what their perspectives are regarding the report.  

Following the discussion, Social Work student Lauren Fine said though the report was a step in the right direction, its policy proposals still remained unclear, particularly when applied to GSIs. 

“I was glad to see that they did have a focus on responsibility to the student because that’s really important and one of the biggest questions that arises from this issue,” she said. “But I also was interested to see that it was pretty vague when it came to how to handle writing letters of recommendation if you have a specific political stance … they ended up with a pretty vague set of ideas that might help guide a GSI in making a decision but also might leave some questions unanswered.”

Fine is not a GSI and said hearing from fellow graduate students who were GSIs helped her understand why the report was so unclear in whether or not GSIs would be held to the same standard as faculty members, especially with regards to letters of recommendation. 

“There was the question of if GSIs are held to the same standards after their contracts are over, if a student approaches them for a recommendation after the fact, what’s their responsibility then?” Fine said. “I hope that they’re able to clarify some of these policies so that GSIs can make informed decisions about writing letters of recommendation.”


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