Inside Higher Ed, The Right to a Recommendation?:
Does a professor have a right to refuse to write a recommendation for a student due to his own political convictions?
A professor at the University of Michigan declined to write a recommendation for a student to study abroad upon realizing the student’s chosen program was in Israel. In an email to the student, which was posted as a screenshot ... on Facebook by the pro-Israel group Club Z and was first reported by Israeli media, the professor cites support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as the reason why he was rescinding an offer to write a recommendation letter. At the same time he indicated he would be happy to write other letters for the student, who is identified only as “Abigail.”
"As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine," says the email from John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the American culture and digital studies department at Michigan. "This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there."
"I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize. But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter."
"Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I'd be happy," the email concludes.
“I firmly stand by the decision because I stand against inequality, I stand against oppression and occupation, I stand against apartheid and I use that word very, very seriously," Cheney-Lippold said in a phone interview with Inside Higher Ed.
He confirmed that he sent the email but clarified that he made a mistake in saying that many university departments have supported the boycott against Israeli universities. What he should have said is that many individual professors do.
Cheney-Lippold said it is appropriate for professors' political and ethical stances to inform their choices of whether and when to write letters on their students' behalf. "The idea of writing a letter of recommendation is a part of being a professor where your own subjectivity comes into play," he said. "I don’t want professors to be seen as just rubber-stamping … A professor should have a decision on how their words will be taken and where their words will go." "I have extraordinary political and ethical conflict lending my name to helping that student go to that place."
The questions at issue are not settled ones, even from the perspective of the main body that advocates for faculty freedoms and rights, the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP has a long-standing policy of opposing academic boycotts.
“In general, AAUP policy does not address whether faculty are obligated to write letters of reference,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, the associate secretary of the AAUP's Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. “I think that it's generally understood that writing such letters falls within the professional duties of faculty members. I also think that it's generally understood that faculty members may decline to write a particular letter in particular instances, for example, because they believe that they have insufficient information on which to base such a letter. In general, refusing to write a letter of reference on grounds that are discriminatory would appear to be at odds with the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics."
John K. Wilson, the co-editor of the AAUP's blog, "Academe," said, "Writing a letter of recommendation is not like teaching a class; it is a voluntary activity, and not a necessary part of one’s academic work. Professors are given broad discretion to decide how, and if, to write a letter. And they can decline if they think the opportunity is not in the best interests of the student, even if the student disagrees."
"However, I think it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation." Wilson stressed however, that the professor should not be punished. "If a professor was systematically refusing to write letters of recommendation because they are time-consuming and unrewarded in academia, it might be appropriate for colleagues to judge it as a small mark against them on the service criterion. But a singular case like this certainly should not be punished in any way," he said.
Cary Nelson, a former AAUP president and an opponent of the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, argued on the other hand that the professor could be punished. "What the professor did violated the student’s academic freedom -- the right to apply to study at any program anywhere in the world," said Nelson, a professor emeritus of English and Jewish culture and society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Nelson said he believes it is a violation of professional ethics for a professor to decline to write a letter for a student on the basis of politics. A faculty member has the right not to write a recommendation, but not based on political objections to the university or nation in which the student is interested in studying, or the student’s own politics, Nelson argued.