A panel of University of Michigan faculty members has recommended a new core statement of principle for the interaction of faculty members with students that says faculty members “must base their actions solely on educational and professional reasons” except in the most unusual circumstances.
Provost Martin Philbert has accepted the report and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel he appointed last fall to explore the intersection of faculty members’ political thought/ideology and their responsibilities to students.
The group of six distinguished faculty members was formed after a professor on the Ann Arbor campus refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student seeking to study abroad in Israel.
At that time, Philbert and President Mark Schlissel said withholding letters of recommendation for students based on the instructor’s personal views fails to meet the university’s expectations for supporting students. The panel was led by James Duderstadt, University Professor of Science and Engineering and president emeritus.
The panel also recommended a supplemental principle that calls for clearly defined procedures for handling challenges to the core statement, and Philbert says he and the deans of U-M’s schools and colleges are committed to further discussion with faculty, staff and students in the fall to establish those procedures.
“The faculty panel’s recommended statement of principle is well-reasoned and solidly grounded in the traditions and past practices of the university and its faculty,” Philbert says. “I believe this is a strong statement that makes it clear that faculty must judge students only on the basis of their academic performance and leave everything else on the sidelines.”
The report was submitted to the provost in late March after the panel reached out extensively to gather a wide range of perspectives. The panel collected written input and hosted open meetings on all three U-M campuses. The group examined existing U-M policies and the policies at peer institutions. The full recommended statement of principle, as articulated in the report, says:
“Faculty members have both rights to academic freedom as scholars and responsibilities as teachers employed by an educational institution. These responsibilities are to one’s disciplines and fields and to the students with whom they work.
“Faculty deal with students in a variety of formal and informal settings. They teach them in classes, advise them in and out of office hours about intellectual and career matters, conduct reading groups and independent studies, hire them as research assistants or to work in labs, write them recommendations, serve on their dissertation committees, and so on.
“In all such settings, absent the most unusual circumstances, faculty must base their actions solely on educational and professional reasons.”
The panel recognized that challenges will occur and so recommended a supplemental governing principle to address such challenges.
“To count as permissible, a departure from the statement of principle — a claim that in some particular case the circumstances are indeed most unusual — has to be reasonable. It is not enough that the faculty member’s stance is sincere and conscientious,” it said.
The panel suggested that further discussions should lead to establishing a process for people to bring concerns forward.
“What we found from our outreach efforts suggests that we would benefit as a community from discussing these issues, our proposed principles, and how they might apply in specific cases. We recommend a process that respects the decentralized nature of the University of Michigan by creating opportunities for discussions at the departmental as well as college levels to build great common awareness and understanding,” the report says.
Philbert said the deans on the Ann Arbor campus are supportive of these further discussions in their individual schools and colleges, and the UM-Dearborn and UM-Flint chancellors and provosts also support the approach.
By the end of the coming fall semester, the provost said, he expected the further discussions would lead to the development of common practices that “both share core features and also take into account the unique aspects of culture and practice in the various units.”
Philbert also said he would reach out to key stakeholder groups across the university including the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, Rackham Student Government and Central Student Government to encourage their feedback.
The commission also noted that the principles must apply to the university’s practices and decisions. The report included a dissenting view on the recommendations.