Progressive except Palestine: University regent candidates fail to protect academic freedom
The job of a regent at the University of Michigan is, at best, amorphous to a large portion of the student body. Their public appearances are generally strictly reserved to monthly board meetings held in intentionally cramped rooms across our campuses, where seemingly endless millions are thrown around to various causes: golf clubhouses, sports complexes and President Mark Schlissel’s salary. Yet, during election season, the regents seem to come out of the woodwork, leaving the closed walls of their beloved University buildings to tout their love for the Michigan community (that they spend almost no time in) and whatever cause they are using in attempts to cajole voters.
Despite the lack of an exact description of what a regent is, one thing was made clear to students and faculty who attended the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting Oct. 15: Regents hold an immense amount of decision-making power at this University. Regardless of whatever talking points they had prepared about the student body, the regents made evident their priority constituents: University donors. The meeting featured five candidates for the Board of Regents – Jordan Acker (D), Paul Brown (D) and Kevin Graves (Green Party) as well as incumbents Andrea Fischer-Newman (R) and Andrew Richner (R). Critiques of Fischer-Newman and Richner are well-established (consider the time it took to rename C.C. Little or their clear priority of lawsuits over community safety when white supremacist Richard Spencer requested to speak in 2017), but if voters are seeking a “Blue Wave” this November, Acker and Brown did not present themselves as the candidates to deliver true progressive policies.
When it comes to the occupation of Palestine, Acker and Brown could be best characterized as Republicans with strategic language. In the words of former adviser to the secretary of Homeland Security Jordan Acker, “there isn’t much daylight between us and our Republican opponents.”
The candidates demonstrated remarkable aisle-reaching on the issue of committee formation to investigate University investments in companies that profit off Palestinian human rights, a resolution that passed in Central Student Government last year. Every candidate save Kevin Graves stated they would not support this resolution in their capacity as regents, a disappointing outcome for students, whose only pathway to formal institutional change is through CSG.
Shortly after quoting slave owner Thomas Jefferson in his opening statement,
Venture capitalist Paul Brown claimed #UMDivest, which is inspired by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, is distinct from the successful student movements in the 1980s to divest from apartheid South Africa. Notably, the former movement is literally after which BDS is modeled, and there has been large support and parallels drawn between BDS and apartheid from Nelson Mandela himself and most recently his grandson. Shockingly, Brown felt a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding was an accurate comparison to BDS – a comparison so offensive it is not worth a response.
The forum’s main subject of concern was the question of academic freedom, specifically Prof. John Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to cross the international picket line in boycotting Israeli academic institutions. What the regents failed to grasp was that supporting BDS is more than a mental state of being, but rather involves a material boycott that is rule-governed and cultivated by Palestinian people. Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation for the student is an example of using BDS exactly as it was intended. Beyond vacuous talk about respecting the rights of students, the censorship of Cheney-Lippold is de facto an official University stance against the BDS movement. This is quite a political statement for an institution that endlessly professes its political neutrality.
It was evident that faculty in attendance were distressed about this reality as well; a self-identified queer professor asked if they would need to write a letter of recommendation of a student applying for a job at the Heritage Foundation, a noted homophobic and far-right think tank. Inexplicably, the regents resoundingly responded that the professor would not be responsible for such a letter – the dissonance of this statement left unexplained. Another faculty member asked how a Palestinian professor could possibly be tasked with writing a recommendation to assist a student in attending an institution that is complicit in their family’s repression, and this, according to the candidates, would be a personal challenge that a Palestinian professor would need to overcome. It is important to note that recommendation letters from faculty are not in their contracts: as one professor in attendance pointed out, they are a courtesy. This, however, did not stop Fischer-Newman from incredulously questioning if a student would be forced to ask professors for recommendation letters before even enrolling in the class — a clear misunderstanding of the reason why students attend classes at University in the first place. When a student asked a question specifically about recommendation letters and faculty contracts, Fischer-Newman asked the faculty if they even wanted to hear the answer.
In a moment of perpetuating false equivalences, Brown compared Cheney-Lippold’s case to a white supremacist instructor refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a Black student applying to work at the NAACP – a statement that is both wildly incoherent and a tacit admission that white supremacists teach at Michigan.
For someone who cites his union rights background, Brown’s unquestioning belief in the administration is disappointing.
The regents were not able to give specific ways in which they would protect their employees — at one point, Richner asked, “What academic due process?” — repeatedly bringing up their support of academic freedom for faculty and failing to understand how Cheney-Lippold’s academic freedom is being violated. This is not only dangerous, but an oppressive abuse of power, when the regents and the administration are setting a precedent for punishing their employees for policies that do not exist. This power is further shown in the absence of any reporting or acknowledgement from the regent candidates on the discourse that occurred during the SACUA meeting – both pointing toward a revisionist history, and a lack of actual commitment by the regents toward issues that are not public facing. Perhaps it is necessary for accusations of pushing political agendas to be turned inward.
What does it mean for the rights of employees if their “academic freedom” only truly exists when their political beliefs are in line with that of a select, privileged few at the University of Michigan? What does it say of our institution when they laud “diversity of thought” then refuse the right for professors to have an opinion when their opinion is specifically standing against the human rights violations in Palestine? What does it mean to Palestinian students who are always asked to wait for justice while attending a University that aids in the killing of their people? Palestinian people are not an exception to otherwise progressive values; Palestine represents a frontier of colonialism and imperialism, and any self-identified progressive is only as progressive as their support for Palestinian liberation.
Kristina Agbebiyi, master’s of social work candidate
Chanelle Davis, LSA senior
Jeff Horowitz, electrical and computer engineer pre-Ph.D candidate
Sharif-Ahmed Krabti, LSA junior
Carly Marten, LSA senior
Hoai An Pham, LSA senior
TRANSCRIPTS OF VIDEOS
VIDEO ONE: Regent candidate Jordan Acker (D) stating that “there isn’t much daylight between us and our Republican opponents" on the issue of Professor John Cheney-Lippold.
ACKER: On this particular issue, I don’t think there is much daylight between us, and how do you say – our Republican opponents, for the board. I think that academic freedom is incredibly important at this university. But the university works best when the regents have hired people that work here on a day to day basis that they trust to handle things correctly, and I think that the way in which the University and the Provost handled this particular situation was well done and I hope as we continue to go forward that we continue to have administrators here who continue to meet that level of excellence and success for U of M.
VIDEO TWO: When asked about supporting the Central Student Government resolution passed last fall to investigate University investments in companies that profit off Palestinian human rights, each regent candidates except for Kevin Graves (Green Party) states that they would not support this resolution in their capacity as regents.
STUDENT: So I guess for context, last year, as I’m sure all of you know, the Central Student Government passed a resolution that called for a committee to investigate the University’s investments in companies that profit off of human rights violations in Palestine. We haven’t seen any movement on that thus far and I’m wondering if the incumbent regents, or the potential regents will support organizing a committee to investigate the University’s Investments in companies that profit off of human rights violations in Palestine.
FISCHER-NEWMAN: No. There was a very clear statement last year put out by a bipartisan group of six regents. I was one of them, my colleague Andrew Richner was another, saying that we would not take up the issue and we would not disinvest in companies that do business in Israel.
RICHNER: Andrea said it well. I think unfortunately the BDS movement which I think is driving this is rooted in Anti-Semitism and I just don’t condone it by any component, and I do not support the resolution.
GRAVES: I support the investigation. When I was running for the Governor’s office in the Green Party and this came up and I supported Palestinians because they’re on their own land and they should have a right to not be bombed by US Missiles.
BROWN: Thank you. I was actually on campus in the eighties when the University, for some unknown reason, was struggling with divesture from South Africa. And it made a huge impact, I think, or added to the impact of resolving that horrible situation. I don’t think this is the same thing. Studies, committees, be there what they are, what I’ve seen I absolutely do not support divesting from Israel.
ACKER: I agree with Paul on this one. As someone who considers myself to be a two states for two people, for Israel and for Palestine, I don’t feel that the movement of BDS will get us any closer to peace in the middle east, so I’m a strong no against BDS.
GRAVES: I’m a strong yes.
VIDEO THREE: Regent candidate Paul Brown (D) quotes slave-owner Thomas Jefferson in his opening statement, referencing how "unfortunately" the University and the state have strayed far from Jefferson's initial plans written in the Northwest Ordinance.
BROWN: Well unfortunately, I think we’re not living up to Thomas Jefferson’s wrods that he wrote in the Northwest Ordinance, a document that created this University in large part and this state.
VIDEO FOUR: Regent candidate Paul Brown (D) compares the BDS movement to the 2018 SCOTUS case regarding the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding.
BROWN: …and I really do equate it to the hard facts, not hard from my perspective, of the baker who, as they say, refuses to bake a cake because it’s for a gay wedding. And the issue really was, the professor was being asked to write a recommendation letter on behalf of a student’s ability, in no way to endorse what the student wanted to go do. And I think that’s a very very important fact.
VIDEO FIVE: Regent Andrea Fischer-Newman (R) asks the faculty if they want to hear the answer when a student asks about how regents will specifically protect the rights of their employees.
RICHNER:…express my viewpoints on that particular issue
STUDENT: So I guess that something that’s frustrating me a little bit when I ask that question and it’s frustrating other people when they ask specifically for the policy points on this, is that faculty are not required to recommendation letters here, and you’ve expressed support for the way that the University has handled this case, so what are the ways in which you feel as though the University decision has protected the rights of the faculty in this case and how will you be continuing to do that.
FISCHER NEWMAN: cuts off student I…I…Does everybody want to hear the answer…do you just want to discuss the Cheney Lippold Case?
VIDEO SIX: Regent candidate Paul Brown (D) compares Professor John Cheney-Lippold's case to a white supremacist instructor refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a Black student applying to work at the NAACP.
BROWN: Imagine a professor who had a great student and more than willing to write a recommendation letter for that student before they found out that they were trying to work for the NAACP or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party…
STUDENT: That’s a false equivalency.
BROWN: I totally disagree that’s a false equivalency.