On Thursday, April 22, representatives from the Graduate Employees’ Organization met with University of Michigan administrators to discuss an issue of free speech on campus — the right to exercise freedom of conscience through the refusal of letters of recommendation. The discussion revealed the University’s current policy, or “governing principle,” for what it is: an attack on academic freedom designed not to protect students or faculty, but only to shield the University from controversy and liability.
This right has been under attack at the University of Michigan since 2018 when, in separate incidents, two instructors — Professor John Cheney-Lippold and a graduate student instructor — declined requests for recommendations from students wishing to study in Israel. Writing these letters would have gone against the academic boycott of Israel in support of Palestinian human rights, and both instructors declined them for that reason. Even though Cheney-Lippold, associate professor of American Culture, was exercising his constitutional right to free speech, U-M leaders nevertheless issued severe sanctions, including the loss of his upcoming sabbatical and a denial of a merit-based raise for one year. The graduate student instructor received a formal letter of admonishment from her department chair with implied threats of dismissal from the graduate program if such behavior were to happen again. What’s more, University President Mark Schlissel and then-Provost Martin Philbert issued a public statement that denounced both instructors.
The punishment meted out to Professor Cheney-Lippold and the public statement from the most powerful U-M leaders was meant to warn campus faculty of the price for academic freedom, and potentially had a chilling effect on those who might otherwise speak out if they did not feel threatened. But the University wanted to make sure this wouldn’t happen again, so they convened a so-called Blue Ribbon Panel to devise a principle that would govern letters of recommendation.
The resulting policy is a strident attack on free speech. It doesn’t prohibit instructors from denying letters of recommendation for political or ethical reasons, but only from vocalizing those reasons. This did not sit well with GEO members, who voted overwhelmingly to oppose the policy in our 2020 contract negotiations. Much has been written about “the Palestine exception to free speech,” which describes the way norms of freedom of expression are so often bent to exclude those who would speak out for justice in Palestine. Despite the ongoing assault on Palestinian lives and human rights, however, our problem with the University’s policy on letters of recommendation is not just about Palestine. More and more, instructors are starting to see letters of recommendation as an important site of political opposition and learning. There is a growing movement among mathematicians to refuse to write letters for privacy-violating surveillance organizations, like the National Security Agency. There is also the longstanding trend of declining recommendation requests for Teach for America applicants. We can think of a whole host of objectionable organizations — ExxonMobil, Raytheon, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s congressional office — to which an instructor may want to vocally refuse to write letters of recommendation. Being able to voice the reason for denying a letter of recommendation is a critical component of any boycott, and GEO is proud to stand against this indefensible policy.
GEO ultimately won a meeting with U-M administrators to discuss the policy and how it will be implemented. The discussion left us only with a clearer sense of how poorly thought-out and difficult to implement the policy is. While U-M administrators made repeated reference to fears of discrimination as justification for the policy, they were never able to explain how Teach for America applicants could be understood as a group that could be discriminated against. The argument that the policy was designed to protect students from discrimination fell apart as the administrators repeatedly told us that graduate student instructors could deny letters for any reason at all — just so long as we don’t vocalize it. Indeed, the University policy as it stands practically gives license to instructors to discriminate against students in denying letters of recommendation, provided that they don’t say the quiet part out loud.
Furthermore, while the University claims to be protecting students, the policy actually makes it more difficult for students to get letters of recommendation. Let’s say a student asks for five letters, and one is to an organization to which the instructor is ethically opposed. According to U-M officials, rather than deny one letter and write the other four, the instructor should refuse to write any letters so as to ensure no political stance is taken. In this situation, the University’s policy would clearly protect the University from liability and provide a shield from controversy, but would the policy benefit students?
The University’s disciplinary process for violations of the policy also remains murky. The administration was unable to give a clear answer as to who was responsible for dealing with violations of the policy. Neither could they describe what kind of disciplinary action an instructor would face for exercising their right to free speech. It seems to us that the amount of controversy generated by the incident is the only thing that will determine how far up the chain of command these complaints would go, and how severe the eventual punishment would be. Part of the University of Michigan’s mission is to develop “leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” Participating in a boycott is one way that we as academics can challenge injustice and push for a better future. Vocalizing our political positions is a key part of our job as educators — whether we are political theorists grappling with questions of democracy or engineers developing tools to stop climate change. This policy stifles academic freedom and discussion and goes against the values that the University claims to uphold. It fails on every count: It doesn’t protect students from discrimination, it doesn’t ensure they get letters and it removes a potentially important part of the learning-teaching relationship. GEO stands firm in our defense of free speech and will oppose this policy until it is no more.
Amir Fleischmann is the Contract Committee Co-Chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.