As a first-year student at the University of Michigan this past semester, I could see that tolerance was a big topic at the University. Incoming students received notices to attend tolerance-focused workshops, heard from their resident advisers about the importance of honoring differences and, in many ways, were made aware that mutual respect at U-M was vital. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” seemed not only to be a University office, but also a mantra on campus. However, the inverse appeared true when it came to the vast political and ideological diversity within the campus culture.
Rhetoric surrounding intolerance, specifically political intolerance, at our university made international headlines in September, when many students and those from all sectors of the school community felt that a professor chose to put his own political expression above a student’s academic freedom. This student, hoping to gain the professor’s recommendation to study abroad at an Israeli university, was denied — after previously being accepted — when the professor learned where the student wished to study. The professor stated he was pledging an “academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.”
Though some argued the student could have easily received a recommendation letter from a different professor, others in the student body and University leadership viewed it as a clear violation of the student’s right to inquiry by a politically motivated professor.
The University administration responded by revoking his sabbatical privileges, and Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of LSA, criticized him for his misconduct by letter, writing, “Faculty…have discretion to decline (writing letters of recommendation) for legitimate reasons such as lack of time, information about the student, and academic assessment; however, that discretion… does not extend to withholding a letter because of your personal views regarding the student’s place of study and then using the student’s request as a political platform for your opinions, both in the media and in the classroom.”
Some in the University community felt that the professor had a legitimate right to withhold his recommendation on personal moral grounds. However, in addition to the University administration, many students, whether speaking as supporters of Israel or as self-described proponents of academic freedom, applauded the University’s response. Regardless, it was soon clear again that tolerance of ideological and political difference is still threatened at U-M. Within two weeks, a Graduate Student Instructor withheld her recommendation from a student who wished to study in Israel, and later, in a required speaking exhibition for first-year students in the School of Art & Design, a speaker showed a PowerPoint slide with side-by-side pictures of Adolf Hitler and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the words “Guilty of Genocide” written across their foreheads.
These actions, viewed as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel by many within and outside of the University, are reflections of an intolerance for certain ideological beliefs and an inequitable passing of judgement. Within both the required presentation and the refusals to write letters of recommendation is the frequently demonstrated practice of holding Israel to a different standard than other states. While the Israeli government’s actions may be frequently subject to controversy, it is certainly inaccurate to claim that it perpetuates genocide against the Palestinians. Both the United Nations and Palestinian authorities have noted the rapid growth of the Palestinian population in recent years. Additionally, even in violent conflict, the Israeli Defense Forces has been known to make repeated and constant efforts to prevent casualties of innocent civilians and specifically target militants who seek Israel’s destruction.
In these repeated incidents, it is clear that students and faculty need to be made increasingly aware of the necessary respect not only for another’s race, economic background or ethnicity, but also for differing political stances and worldviews. Incidents such as these carry the power to not only harm academic inquiry and freedom, but also the safe environment the University strives to create for students and faculty.
In the results of a survey published by the University in November 2017, U-M researchers recognized the need for “(encouraging) greater productive interactions across different political orientations and ideologies,” and explicitly stated, “the university is sponsoring a series of events focusing on the issue of free speech with participants from a variety of perspectives.” These efforts, if continued, may help students — and faculty — to become aware and tolerant of other ideologies and political stances and create a more inclusive campus environment. However, these measures will not achieve their desired goals if political discrimination is allowed to continue at the hands of University faculty, staff and invited guest lecturers, as these groups not only hold positions of power, but also serve as role models for how students should behave in a diverse community. I believe positive change is possible, but before students can be expected to change, the University must do its best to assure that those at the helm of creating our U-M education also hold up the standards we set on campus.
The problem of intolerance, specifically in the collision between politics and academia, does not only exist at Michigan and other college campuses, but on a national scale as well. Tolerance and understanding is often preached by citizens and politicians on both sides of the aisle, yet, toward their political opponents, it is rarely practiced. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in June 2016 found 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans say they maintain an unfavorable attitude toward their opposing party. The descriptions most commonly used by those in each party for those with differing views were “close-minded,” “dishonest,” “immoral” and “unintelligent.”
Perhaps the most alarming statistic of them all was 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said the other party’s policies “threaten” the well-being of the United States. In a country that is at its best when its citizens are united, these statistics show we have quite a bit of work to do in healing our divided society. The question arises: What can we do about this?
I propose a solution: reparation can be achieved by creating more opportunities for dialogue and interaction between people of differing ideological persuasions, both as examples for — and within — the student body. The survey also provided one statistic that revealed when supporters of the two major parties had few to no friends from the opposing party, they were much more likely to take on “very cold” views of their fellow citizens. Yet, the opposite proved true with respondents who reported having “a lot” or “some” friends on the other side of the ideological spectrum.
Maybe this is where the solution lies, nationwide as well as at the University of Michigan. Organized dialogue between various political organizations could potentially significantly improve inter-group political relations from the ground up. This could operate hand-in-hand with a continued and easily accessible series of speakers with diverse perspectives, not just on free speech, but on many of the wide ranging issues that arise in political discourse. It may take work to convince the vast network of ideological camps to emerge from echo chambers and open their hearts and minds to others, but the positive results we could see from a united country and campus, seeded with tolerance and free thought, will hopefully prove such efforts fruitful for all.