Open Letter Regarding the Blue Ribbon Panel

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 8:40pm

To the Regents, President, and Provost of the University of Michigan and the Provost’s Blue Ribbon Panel (or anyone who is actually listening):

It is painfully clear that you are neither prepared to protect academic freedom nor the rights of marginalized students. As the University is under pressure from media, donors, and community members to justify punishing a professor and graduate student instructor for refusing to write letters of recommendation –– a task they are not required to do –– the creation of the Blue Ribbon Panel has served to buy the University some time. This Panel is tasked with recommend[ing] appropriate considerations and principlesregarding faculty members’ political expressions and their responsibilities to students.

However, the panel’s vague charge to recommend considerations and principles, and the limit to its power as a mere recommending body that may be dismissed if found to be of the wrong political bent, demonstrate that the panel’s purpose is to serve as a shallow public relations ploy; a mere facade of serious engagement with the topic at hand.

The behavior of the panelists has reinforced this notion. In the almost three months since the Blue Ribbon Panel’s announcement, there have been no public statements about the Panel’s process, how it will operate, or what its research priorities even are. Provost Philbert and the panelists have abdicated their responsibility to the public, opting against transparency and community engagement at every turn.

Meanwhile, the “Opportunities for Input” survey put out by the panel was both leading and out of line with qualitative research norms. The first survey question, for example, proposes a set of faculty responsibilities to students, then proceeds to ask survey respondents whether or not they agree with them. This reduces the parameters of subject responses to an agree-disagree binary, a pitfall any novice researcher trained in qualitative research is taught to avoid. In so doing, the Panel’s survey limits the issue to being a simple conflict between student and faculty interests, thereby precluding any considerations that fall outside of that framing.

The firstlistening sessionheld on campus in Ann Arbor was just as telling, as it made certain that the panel would not even attempt meaningful engagement with the campus community. Facing a room of faculty, students, and community members, many of whom challenged the very legitimacy of the panel, the panelists refused to respond. When President Emeritus Duderstadt was asked direct procedural questions about the panel’s timeline, or how information collected by the panel would be analyzed, he plainly acknowledged that there was no plan. All other questions were met with silence and disdain, while Martin Philbert and Deborah Goldberg didn’t even bother to show up. Given the climate of fear and fragile calm holding over campus in the wake of threats made against Professor Cheney-Lippold’s job, it is appalling that the panel could not even affirm that survey responses would be anonymous.

And while the panel sets out to address political bias among professors, it ironically fails to account for its own problematic makeup. Out of the six faculty members on the panel, none come from humanities departments, and none have professional research experience addressing the racial-colonial dynamics central to the issue at hand. Despite being formed in the wake of controversy over the University’s relationship to institutions in occupied Palestine, there are no Palestinian voices on the panel.

There are, however, at least two members with significant relationships or engagements with Israeli academic institutions. Deborah Loewenberg Ball has given presentations or lectures at six different Israeli institutions. Deborah Goldberg has held appointments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University. It becomes difficult, then, to imagine this panel building room for dissenting views or serving any purpose other than to uphold established norms and silencing conscientious objection. In contrast, when U-M student governments on three campuses democratically passed resolutions calling for Divestment, University Regents Denise Ilitch and Mark Bernstein made loaded charges of anti-Semitism against them, the latter calling the resolutions “intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant.” Clearly, the panel is uninterested in systematically addressing political bias; it serves only to reaffirm the Palestine exception to free speech.

For these reasons, the Blue Ribbon Panel should be dissolved. Instead, University leadership should follow the recommendations of letters signed by hundreds of faculty, graduate student instructors, students, professional and academic organizations, and Jewish and Palestinian communities advocating for the right of faculty and staff to engage in conscientious dissent without fear of repercussions. We also call on the University to end its fiscal ties to Israeli institutions and corporations by honoring democratically passed Divestment resolutions on all three University campuses. In doing so, the University can begin to build an environment of academic freedom for the entire campus community.

In Protest,

Direct Action for Palestine