Panel on faculty responsibility, rec letters criticized for lack of diversity

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 - 6:14pm

Some University of Michigan faculty took issue with a lack of diversity on a panel intended to “examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and faculty members’ responsibilities to students” since the University publicized the panel’s composition in a press release Wednesday.

The panel was first announced after the University imposed sanctions on American Culture Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold for declining to write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to study abroad in Israel as part of an academic boycott of the nation. Rackham student Lucy Peterson, a graduate student instructor in the Political Science department, joined Cheney-Lippold in declining to write a letter for a student also intending to study in Israel.

According to an open letter to the campus community from University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert, the panel will accordingly make recommendations for the University’s policy to clarify expectations of faculty with regard to writing letters of recommendation for students. Although there is currently no written policy on professors’ obligations — or lack thereof — to requests for letters of reccomendation, a press release published Wednesday explains faculty members are expected to withhold personal and politcal beliefs from their responses. 

“Students have academic freedom as well to pursue programs of study and research that they are most interested in,” Philbert said in the release. “Writing letters of reference for students is a responsibility that arises from the educational relationship. The university can set expectations for instructors charged with teaching our students.”

The panel will now review institutional guidelines on professors’ political expressions and responsibilities to students. The Wednesday release also made the body’s membership public. James Duderstadt, president emeritus and professor of science and engineering, will lead the panel, and will be joined by longtime professors Deborah Ball from the School of Education, Susan Collins from the School of Public Policy, Deborah Goldberg from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Don Herzog from the Law School, and Bill Lovejoy from the Ross School of Business.

Kirsten Herold, a lecturer in the School of Public Health and the vice president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, noted the seniority of all the faculty on the panel.

“It’s kind of funny, actually, when you look at them, that they’re all full professors,” she said. “They have probably all known each other for 20 years at least, which is not usually the way we try to get diverse voices.”

Herold said the panel’s composition left out a variety of perspectives, including lecturers, who are often intimately involved in the process of writing letters of recommendation for undergraduates.

“Lecturers teach most of the first- and second-year classes; we often teach small classes, so we tend to know the students quite well, like the lecturers who teach writing and language classes, math classes. And they know the students well, so the students often come to us to ask for letters,” she said. “If you really want to have a thoughtful, deep dive into this complicated issue of –– you know, their decision is they want to be able to compel people to write letters even when they’re not necessarily comfortable writing them … there’s a lot of different ways of looking at this issue.”

History Associate Professor John Carson agreed, noting the panel did not include any faculty members who worked in the humanities.

“The set of individuals, as far as I can tell, and I only know a few of them, are not necessarily those who are particularly close to the issue right now,” Carson said. “The number of them that are likely to be even writing many undergraduate recommendations is probably on the low side. It just seems important given the many implications of what the committee could come up with that the set of individuals helping to talk about this be pretty broad and diverse.”

In a letter obtained by The Daily, Philbert responded to concerns raised by the American Association of University Professors that the University did not follow due process in determining the discipline given to Cheney-Lippold, which included a year-long pay freeze and two years of ineligibility for sabbatical credits. In a letter addressed to Schlissel, Philbert and interim LSA Dean Elizabeth Cole, AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede advised AAUP standards for the severity of the discipline called for an informal inquiry by a faculty committee and then a hearing before an elected faculty body. In the letter addressed to Tiede, Philbert responded Cole had consulted with the LSA Executive Committee, which comprises six elected faculty members.

“The university understands and wholeheartedly shares your respect for the principles of appropriate process and fairness,” Philbert wrote. “While we do not discuss individual personnel actions, please understand that the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) and the university as a whole have procedural safeguards in place of the same nature as the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”

The release also states the University believes academic boycotts like Cheney-Lippold and Peterson’s actions against Israel “violate the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which are fundamental to our missions of education and research.”