Blue Ribbon Panel report states faculty-student interactions must be based solely on academic performance

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 12:02pm

Provost Martin Philbert accepts new core statement explaining faculty-student interactions must be based on academic performance.

Provost Martin Philbert accepts new core statement explaining faculty-student interactions must be based on academic performance. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

Provost Martin Philbert has accepted a new core statement of principles for faculty-student interactions, which states faculty members “must base their actions solely on educational and professional reasons,” barring the most unusual circumstances. This statement came at the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Panel, a faculty panel appointed by Philbert in October 2018 to study the intersection between faculty political ideology and responsibility to students.

The panel was created following controversy caused by faculty denying students letters of recommendation for study-abroad programs in Israel and the University’s resulting sanctions. However, in a report published on March 21, the Blue Ribbon Panel emphasized its suggestions are not meant to apply solely to letters of recommendation situations.

“We considered a range of possible scenarios to broaden our context beyond considerations related to faculty writing letters for recommendation for students,” the report stated.

In an interview with the University Record, Philbert expressed the new core statement clearly states faculty may evaluate students only on academic grounds.

“The faculty panel’s recommended statement of principle is well-reasoned and solidly grounded in the traditions and past practices of the University and its faculty,” Philbert said.

The panel also recommended adding a supplemental governing principle in case of challenges to the core statement. According to the report, in these “most unusual circumstances,” it is not enough that a faculty member’s beliefs to be “sincere and conscientious” for an exception to be granted. The complaint should first be heard by the department, and if not resolved, appealed to a higher body of diverse faculty members, the panel suggested.

The Blue Ribbon Panel report featured a dissenting opinion from panel member and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor Deborah Goldberg. In her statement, Goldberg expressed her belief that the core statement is too absolute which may lead to inappropriate sanctioning of faculty and an atmosphere of fear among faculty.

Goldberg also separated formal faculty responsibilities, such as teaching and student evaluation, from less formal activities, such as research mentoring, career or educational guidance, offering professional opportunities or writing letters of recommendation. Goldberg called these informal duties a “gray area.”

“The university generally should expect that faculty will prioritize student autonomy in such cases,” Goldberg wrote. “Faculty nevertheless should have the right to refuse to promote student educational aspirations that go against their own ethical and moral commitments, as long as those commitments are based on well-reasoned judgments and are not discriminatory based on individual identity.”

The Blue Ribbon Panel report comes after several listening sessions, held on both Central and North Campus and on the Dearborn and Flint campuses.

Mark Thompson-Kolar, a lecturer in the School of Information, spoke at the December listening session at Palmer Commons, suggesting political beliefs should not affect a professor’s decision to write a letter of recommendation. In an interview with The Daily, Thompson-Kolar reiterated these sentiments and agreed with the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations.

“That recommendation sounds like it’s right in line with what I was advocating for in my comments,” Thompson-Kolar said. “It just keeps ideology out of it. If you would have recommended the student based on their credentials, but then you decide to withhold that because of where the student is applying, that’s just wrong. That’s you as a professor arrogantly putting your ideology ahead of the wellbeing of the students you are in a position to teach and mentor.”

According to Thompson-Kolar, his opinions are reflective of those of many faculty members.

“I expect that there will probably be a quiet majority of professors that will agree with everything I just said,” Thompson-Kolar said. “I think that you’re going to find the more vocal, opinionated ones are fighting it.”

Activist group Direct Action for Palestine overtook the January listening session in protest of the panel and the University’s sanctions addressing the letter of recommendation controversy. During the session, DAP announced a list of demands, including the retraction of sanctions against the two faculty members at the center of the controversy and divestment from Israeli universities and study-abroad programs. In place of the open session, DAP hosted their own speakers then answered questions from the audience.

In an open letter published in The Daily before the January listening session, DAP criticized the panel, expressing they felt the panel lacked transparency in its task and process. Among other concerns, DAP questioned the composition of the panel, noting it lacked faculty from the humanities or of Palestinian identity. DAP also expressed they were upset the panel did not respond to or engage with the audience at the December listening session.

In an interview with The Daily, the head of DAP, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Rami Abdullah, referenced and reaffirmed the views presented in the open letter. Speaking on behalf of DAP, Abdullah expressed the new policy could potentially be used to silence certain political opinions.

“We are disappointed the University is choosing to adopt the policy,” Abdullah said. “We agree with the dissenting opinion that the policy seems to be ambiguous. It allows the University to deploy the policy, really, for any purpose that it’s interested in. It very much looks like something that can be used for political silencing, especially around the issues that they disagree with such as around Palestine.”

Abdullah also said DAP feels the panel’s conclusions are similar to the stance the University took before the panel was formed and does not fully reflect all opinions.

“I think, given how polarized that situation was, it really feels like the conclusions of the report doesn’t take into account many varying opinions,” Abdullah said. “We feel like this (recommendation) is reflective of the opinion the University has already taken before forming the panel. So really, not much has changed regarding the University’s actions before the panel and after the panel.”

According to Abdullah, DAP is planning to think through a response to the panel’s conclusions and to the provost’s adoption of the recommendations as policy, particularly as DAP believed the panel would not be recommending policy. Abdullah explained it is still ambiguous what the response will be, since it is harder to mobilize students after the end of a semester.

University of Michigan Hillel did not respond to requests for comment.  

The panel also gathered input from an online form sent to faculty, students and staff on all three campuses, which received 1127 responses according to the report. In addition, the panel received feedback and met with groups of faculty and students, including the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, Ann Arbor campus deans and chairs of the humanities departments within LSA.

To determine a clearly defined process for granting exceptions to the core statement, the panel suggested further discussion within the University community. In the University Record, Philbert said deans on the Ann Arbor campus and chancellors of the Dearborn and Flint campus are in support of more discussion, which would continue until the end of the 2019 fall semester. Philbert encouraged feedback from the Senate Advisory Committee, Rackham Student Government and Central Student Government.