SACUA releases new statement showing support for “academic freedom”

Monday, October 22, 2018 - 8:09pm

In their new statement, SACUA said Cole’s response could possibly create “a chilling effect on members of the academic community who may, for legitimate and deeply held personal reasons, feel uncomfortable about providing letters to certain organizations

In their new statement, SACUA said Cole’s response could possibly create “a chilling effect on members of the academic community who may, for legitimate and deeply held personal reasons, feel uncomfortable about providing letters to certain organizations Buy this photo
Courtesy of SACUA

In a statement released early Monday morning, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs at the University of Michigan addressed the recent letter issued by LSA Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole regarding the retraction of a recommendation letter by Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold. SACUA stressed the importance of “academic freedom and the rights and responsibilities of academic tenure.”

The statement comes after an earlier statement released Sept. 24 from SACUA, revealing their “disappointment” in a professor that would allow his personal beliefs to limit opportunity for University students. The earlier document echoes the statement produced by University President Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert advocating for the creation of a panel that would attempt to find a balance between political ideology and professors’ commitment to their students, and ultimately placed emphasis on the notion that “faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students.”

However, the new proclamation specifically pertains to the letter by Cole which reveals the sanctions placed on Cheney-Lippold by the administration. These sanctions restrict Cheney-Lippold from receiving a salary increase for one year and voids him of sabbatical credits for two years.

These penalties followed Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to pen a recommendation letter for LSA junior Abigail Ingber after learning her study abroad location was in Israel. Shortly after, Rackham student Lucy Peterson followed suit, refusing to deliver a letter for a student wishing to study in the same area.

Peterson wrote in an op-ed published by The Daily that her “action attests to (her) ongoing engagement with the theory and practice of social justice pedagogy as well as (her) concern for the injustices suffered by Palestinians.”

Shortly after, Cole addressed Cheney-Lippold directly in a letter published Oct. 3 and said future decisions to write a letter of recommendation should put students ahead of a political agenda.

“In the future, a student’s merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation,” Cole wrote. “You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”

In the new statement, SACUA said Cole’s response could possibly create “a chilling effect on members of the academic community who may, for legitimate and deeply held personal reasons, feel uncomfortable about providing letters to certain organizations or individuals.”

SACUA cited its previous statement, declaring the assembly wished to affirm a “community standard,” and thus objects to the preceding letter being used as “endorsement” for the disciplines placed on Cheney-Lippold.

Similarly, SACUA reasserted their commitment to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Professional Ethics, which, again, places a student’s merit as the dominant factor in assessing a student’s request for a letter of recommendation.

However, Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the AAUP, has also recently addressed the penalties placed on Cheney-Lippold. Tiede suggested the University reconsider their decision, claiming the sanctions “violate the association’s standards of due process.”

SACUA emphasized recommendation letters are “personal endorsements,” and the declining of this act should not cultivate a fear of retribution. Moreover, SACUA stressed in the case of a member of the University community being so afraid that they might feel coerced to administer a letter or recommendation, or advocate for opinions they do not truly hold, would then lead to “the integrity of the recommendation (being) tarnished and the academic freedom that is central to our University (becoming) impugned.”

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