The sometimes contentious relationship between free speech and academic equity at the University of Michigan came to a head this week. In a letter to the University community, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert stated that two instructors — who recently denied letters of recommendation for study abroad programs in Israel due to their own support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — did not meet University expectations for the behaviors of instructors. Separately, The Michigan Daily and The Detroit News obtained a letter from Interim LSA Dean Elizabeth Cole, informing one of the instructors, John Cheney-Lippold, associate professor in the Department of American Culture, that his actions violated University policy, and he would be disciplined with loss of a merit raise and delay of his planned sabbatical.
As an editorial staff, we agree with the University that it is wrong for a student’s educational opportunities to be limited by the political stances of an instructor, rather than the merit of the student. The academic success of students should be a top priority for universities, and the denial of students’ recommendation letters on account of professors’ personal beliefs unfairly blocks students from academic opportunities based on circumstances outside their control. The decision to write a recommendation letter or not should be based on the student’s academic merit and performance in class, independent of the educator’s personal leanings.
However, on a campus that welcomes free speech and free thinking, the delineation between when certain personal and political views can and cannot be expressed on part of the professor is a blurry line. Professors have the freedom to craft their courses, design syllabi and work on independent projects, research and other scholarly work. The crossover of this ideal of professors’ free speech, so embedded in the University, with their relationships with classes and students is often a point of contention. Where do they draw the line in expressing their views? The reaction of the University this week provided a stark answer. The harsh disciplinary measures taken against Cheney-Lippold’s statement which was, at its core, an expression of free speech, gave some clarity to this ever-blurred line. Yet, what remains an issue is whether the punishment was warranted given the lack of precedent. We believe it was not. Though Cole alluded to the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs’s statement condemning professors using political views to impede “free pursuit of learning in their students,” the University has yet to adopt a concrete policy regarding this matter. The absence of precedent on campus regarding the manner in which professors should or should not voice their perspectives and political leanings — a decision often left up to the discretion of the professor themselves — warranted a less severe mode of discipline on Cheney-Lippold.
The University should have first expressed disagreement with the exclusionary behavior Cheney-Lippold presented towards a student in an academic setting and followed with a public, apolitical warning. This would help express the University’s main philosophy, which is to ensure academic opportunities, growth and support for students. Additionally, this would set a cautionary precedent for future University instructors who might consider doing the same in the future. This form of foreshadowing disciplinary action is more fair and effective than the immediate, reactionary discipline shown by the University.
Further, whether intentional or not, the swiftness and outspoken nature of the University’s action in this situation has the power to isolate some students on campus, namely Palestinian students and allies who have not seen the University as proactive in protecting their academic freedom and safety when they have been systematically targeted and harassed online for their own speech on the topic. Neutrality of the University is of utmost importance, as every student should feel equally supported by the University regardless of their religious or political beliefs. We would hope the outspokenness of the University on behalf of the two students in protecting their academic freedom is a sentiment that will be echoed for all students.
The institution of a university, at its core, is to be a place of development and thought — an environment conducive to growing academic interests, as well as personal values and perspectives. Free speech, then, is parallel to free thinking. If we as students are urged to, from day one, think for ourselves and be challenged by the theories, problems and readings we encounter daily, in an effort for us to leave this campus more confident in ourselves and beliefs, how can this expectation not extend to our professors? We recognize, however, that at the same time the students’ academic freedom was also limited by the refusal of both the graduate student instructor and professor to write study abroad recommendation letters.
These recent events have exhibited the ongoing tensions and hard questions we must grapple with on our campus. As a university with a teeming student population, various schools of focus and a slew of student and political organizations, national and international issues are essentially our own. In the last few weeks, we’ve all grappled with many of these conflicting ideals. In addressing the issue directly this week, the University tried to resolve many of these conflicts, but many questions remain. We hope that the University’s newly formed panel — faculty who are aiming to address when academic freedom and political ideology come into conflict — involves students, and takes into account our role in these instances. The reverberating effects their statement and disciplinary measures had on students and faculty alike will continue to leave us questioning all of our roles as part of a single academic community.
Anu Roy-Chaudhury and Ashley Zhang
Editorial Page Editors
Ben Charlson, Joel Danilewitz, Tara Jayaram, Jeremy Kaplan, and Magdalena Mihaylova
Senior Opinion Editors