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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Can Professors Refuse To Write Letters Of Recommendations For Political Reasons?

IsraelInside 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.

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I'm happy to write a letter for anyone denied on this basis

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Sep 23, 2018 9:09:07 AM

What is she supposed to do when almost every professor is a liberal?

Posted by: Anon | Sep 23, 2018 5:19:51 PM

I don't agree with the professor's stance on this issue, but I think it's a bit troubling that the professor has his privacy invaded while the student gets to remain anonymous.

Why is it necessary to name and shame the professor? The student should be able to easily find another professor willing to write a letter of recommendation without resorting to these tactics.

Posted by: Naming names | Sep 23, 2018 9:17:30 PM

It isn't a right to get a letter. Conservatives would nashing at the teeth if a professor at a Christian school was forced to write a letter for a gay student.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 24, 2018 1:55:20 AM

Naming names. The professor has chosen to embrace the principles of BDS, a very public, divisive movement. He then put his own personal politics over the welfare of a student.

He named and shamed himself.

I wonder if he writes recommendations for students studying in totalitarian China, or any repressive Islamic country? My guess is that he has singled out the world's only Jewish state - but he's not anti-Semitic, no way...

Posted by: Todd | Sep 24, 2018 7:33:11 AM

It seems only fair that a professor can choose why or why not to write a recommendation letter. But if it is for ideological or political reasons, or some other reason that is impacted by public policy, it should be clearly be made public, so that other students can avoid that person (both for letters of recommendation and for classes taught or research performed). If a prof wants to be partisan, allow the students the same privilege.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Sep 24, 2018 8:44:37 AM

A hyphenated male. What's more submissive and controlled than "beta"?

Posted by: BW | Sep 24, 2018 9:46:16 AM

Of course professors should have a right not to right letters of recommendation that conflict with their personal beliefs. Anything else is an attack on private conscience. But they should also make explicit statements of the restrictions they adhere to, so that students won't waste time pursuing recommendations that won't be given, and can choose to pursue letters from professors who will actually help them. And such statements should not expose them to penalties in their careers; that seems to fall under the classical notion of academic freedom.

Posted by: William H. Stoddard | Sep 24, 2018 9:52:32 AM

She should take him up on his offer to write a recommendation letter for someplace else, and then send that letter to the Israeli institution. I assume they would be eager to give her credit for the letter.

Posted by: Larvell | Sep 24, 2018 9:55:45 AM

"The student should be able to easily find another professor willing to write a letter of recommendation without resorting to these tactics."

That's not clear. It may well be that the requestor wants one from his thesis advisor, or from one from the professors he has done a given project or taken a given course from.

Posted by: RonF | Sep 24, 2018 10:00:29 AM

Much of a professor's reason for being is supporting students in their academic and professional pursuits. That includes providing letters of recommendation.
If this clown does not, or cannot understand that, he needs to find another job. I'm sure there are many fine positions which are commensurate with his qualifications; the food service industry is always looking for a few good men/women/others.

Posted by: orthodoc | Sep 24, 2018 10:01:50 AM

Not a problem. Change the location of study to Palestine which would include Israel.

Posted by: harleycowboy | Sep 24, 2018 11:53:46 AM

Compelled speech principles say no. But:

If not, then can a professor decline to write a recommendation because the petitioner is Jewish? Or male? Or white? Or heterosexual? How about when these reasons are quite reasonably suspected--when the professor even makes it clear enough to the petitioner, off the record--but are just the other side of provable?

Maybe letters of recommendation have become a currency that can no longer be used in a nondiscriminatory fashion?

Posted by: Egg0 | Sep 24, 2018 11:59:07 AM

Yes, the leftard asshole can refuse to write a recommendation for any reason, or no reason at all. Freedom of speech includes the right not to speak.

The student in this case should communicate to the institution where she's applying the fact that her professor is a Jew-hater who refused to write a letter of recommendation.

Posted by: John C. Randolph | Sep 24, 2018 12:27:44 PM

Although BDS is a very misguided enterprise (as pointed out ad nauseum, even in its worst light, Israel is not nearly as repressive as many other regimes that are not subject to similar boycotts), compelled speech should be anathema in academia. However, the professor should make his stance public and easily accessible so that Jewish and Israeli students, and anyone else that may want to study in Israel, are fully aware of this bias before they take his classes and put themselves in a position where they need his recommendation. Much like certain professors are now barred from teaching required first year law courses, no student should be forced to take courses with this professor, and every student should have the right to make an informed choice.

Posted by: r | Sep 24, 2018 1:13:48 PM

These days, I now refuse to write letters of recommendation for conservative law students. Law students from top schools are supposed to possess tremendous intellect, integrity, and character. The conservative movement has abandoned intellectualism by denying climate science and basic economic principles. Moreover, the movement has been hijacked by racist elements calling for a Muslim ban and a racist border wall. Now the conservative movement has sunken to a new low by excusing sexual assault. I’m not going to ruin my reputation by endorsing an associate of this repulsive movement.

Posted by: Reputation | Sep 24, 2018 4:01:35 PM

Rep -- you forgot the s/.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Sep 24, 2018 7:43:58 PM

@Reputation, with your obvious limited intellect, partisan bias, and vitriolic temperament, I suspect no one would want a letter of recommendation from you anyway.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Sep 25, 2018 4:14:25 AM