Faculty panel on academic freedom begins outreach to campus

Thursday, December 6, 2018 - 7:02pm

The University of Michigan’s faculty panel on academic freedom is seeking input from the campus community.

The University of Michigan’s faculty panel on academic freedom is seeking input from the campus community. Buy this photo
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The University of Michigan’s faculty panel on academic freedom is seeking input from the campus community on “the intersection of faculty members’ political ideology and their responsibilities to students,” the University announced in a press release. In addition to conducting a campus-wide online survey of attitudes on the subject, the panel will also hold a series of open meetings in December and January on the University’s three campuses to gather additional input.

The University created the panel in the wake of its punishment of American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold, who rescinded his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student’s study abroad trip after discovering the program was in Israel. Cheney-Lippold’s punishment consists of a year-long pay freeze, as well as a two-year freeze on his sabbatical credits and eligibility. Several professional institutions, including the American Association of University Professors, in addition to many graduate students and faculty have criticized the University for imposing the discipline on Cheney-Lippold without due process.

University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert announced the creation of the panel in an open letter to the campus titled “Important questions around issues of personal beliefs, our responsibilities as educators, and anti-Semitism.”

As we have stated, U-M strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and no school, college, department or unit at our university endorses such a boycott,” the letter read. “We will work to make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support.”

Faculty members have criticized the lack of diversity on the panel, noting it consists entirely of full professors, and does not include any professors in the humanities. The panel is chaired by Science and Engineering professor James Duderstadt, who served as the University’s president from 1988 to 1996. Duderstadt could not be reached for direct comment.

“Our goal is to solicit a broad range of perspectives on this question: What ought to be intersection of faculty members’ political thought/ideology and their responsibilities to students?” Duderstadt said in the press release. “Our charge is not to formulate specific policy or processes, but to recommend appropriate considerations and principles.”

In a recent interview with The Daily, Schlissel affirmed the purpose of the panel was to analyze the opinions of the community, clarifying final decisions on policy would rest with him, Philbert and the University’s deans.

On Dec. 3, the Office of the Provost sent an email to students and faculty announcing the faculty panel’s open meetings and containing a link to the four-question survey. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said the initial response to the message “has been good.”

The first question asks whether respondents agree with the panel’s identification of primary “responsibilities to students”: teaching, advising, assessing, giving feedback and recommending. The second question asks if respondents can envision “conflicts between faculty members’ political thought … and faculty members’ responsibilities to students,” and how they should be managed.

Professor Emeritus Alan Wald spoke at a recent teach-in held in response to the University’s punishment of Cheney-Lippold that was dubbed the “Unappointed Advisory Committee on Academic Freedom.” Wald said the survey questions failed to get at the heart of the issue, and seemed like “a diversion from the truly pressing concerns.”

“They (the questions) evade the central problem that has now become crucial to both faculty and students, and is the cause for campus-wide concern: Is it permissible for faculty members to rely on their own ethical reasoning when making decisions that affect students, such as whether or not to write a letter of recommendation for a position with an organization or institution that engages in discrimination or other practices to which the faculty member is morally opposed?” Wald wrote in an email to The Daily. “At present, this reads like a smoke screen to provide the veneer of open and inclusive decision-making when, in reality, the fix is already in.”

The third survey question asks, “Do notions of academic freedom bear on question #2?” History professor Howard Brick, who spoke at the same teach-in, called the survey questions “exceptionally vague.” Questions of defining academic freedom, he said, “must ultimately reside with the faculty.” Brick agreed the University should seek the input of students and staff, but expressed doubts about whether the panel’s outreach would provide a genuine opportunity, given the actions the University had already taken.

“To convene such a discussion after punitive measures have been taken against the faculty member shows a deep problem with the whole university’s response to this issue,” Brick said. “If it doesn’t cast doubt on the fairness of that inquiry in terms of how (the)] committee and its powers are constituted, it at least exposes the punishment of the professor as unfair, because it confesses that there has been no consensual terms regarding the legitimacy of such actions heretofore.”

According to Broekhuizen, however, “academic freedom is not in question.” In an earlier interview with The Daily, Schlissel agreed the problem was not one of freedom of expression, which he said could be practiced through venues that didn’t overlap with responsibilities to students.

“We also want the faculty to share this consensus that it's about the student,” Schlissel said. “It's not about (the professors). It's not a platform for their speech and their politics. It’s about our obligation to support students. And it can’t be imposed as a rule; it has to be imposed by values.”