President, provost expand on issues of personal beliefs, reference letters


Recent events on the Ann Arbor campus have raised questions and sparked debates around issues of the role of personal beliefs in the decision by educators whether to write reference letters for students.

Two U-M students were denied promised letters of recommendation for academic programs based on the personal views of two individuals with instructional responsibilities. Both denials were due to the fact that the students were applying to study in Israel.

President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert addressed these matters in an Oct. 9 letter to the university community. In reference to letters of recommendation that instructors would otherwise be willing to provide, they said that withholding letters of recommendation based on the instructor’s personal views fails to meet our university’s expectations for supporting our students.

The concerns raised on our Ann Arbor campus have been the subject of news stories locally, regionally and around the globe.

In an effort to bring additional clarity to the issues involved, President Schlissel and Provost Philbert have further explored the issues in a question-and-answer format.

Q: What do you want the university community to know about this issue?

Provost Philbert: I want the community to know that we believe students should be the ones to determine their own career and study aspirations, and we should help them achieve those goals.

We must strive for a level playing field, where the quality of a student’s work — and not an instructor’s political or personal beliefs — is the deciding factor in any number of circumstances. This could include a recommendation letter, a grade on a test, a spot on an academic panel, a grant or a job. Let the student’s effort and ability be the deciding factor.
We also want people to know we value free speech on this campus, including speech that people may disagree with or find offensive or controversial. It is a hallmark of this institution, and it has been tested time and time again — and we have held true to our values. That free speech is expressed in many ways on our campus. This situation is not a matter of free speech.

Q: Why is the university addressing instructors’ denials of letters of reference for students?

President Schlissel: Letters of reference are necessary for students to pursue their academic and career aspirations — the same kinds of letters we all needed and received to pursue our goals. The selection process for virtually every academic program of study and job opportunity requires references, very often in the form of a letter.

Denying letters of reference based on personal views harms our students by interfering with their opportunities. Our students have the right to determine where they want to study or work. Students should succeed or fail based on their merits alone. That includes whether they receive a reference letter.

They should not be punished because their views or decisions are not in sync with an instructor. 

Q: Are instructors obligated to write letters of reference?

President Schlissel: Instructors are not required to write letters of reference for everyone who requests them. While there are many legitimate reasons letters may be declined, including workload, unfamiliarity with the student, or assessments of a student’s academic merit, withholding recommendations that an instructor would otherwise be willing to provide based on the instructor’s personal or political views fails to meet expectations for supporting our students. Such a denial, in essence, has the potential to deny students opportunities they have earned and put decision-making about a student’s aspirations in the hands of someone other than the student.

Q: Why is supporting students’ academic growth through letters of reference a fundamental value?

Provost Philbert: We hold our students’ academic and career aspirations in the highest regard, and respect that they are in the position to determine what those aspirations will be. These decisions should be left in students’ hands, though of course faculty and others can talk with students about their decisions and offer advice.

Q: What about instructors’ academic freedom?

Provost Philbert: We strongly believe in academic freedom. My own research has at times been controversial, and this foundational academic value allowed me to pursue lines of inquiry that many disagreed with. Many of our University of Michigan colleagues have conducted research or expressed interpretations that are controversial in some way. What’s different with this issue is that it’s not about the instructor, but rather about the importance of supporting our students.

Students have academic freedom as well to pursue programs of study and research that they are most interested in. Writing letters of reference for students is a responsibility that arises from the educational relationship. The university can set expectations for instructors charged with teaching our students.

Instructors remain free to pursue their own research and studies, and to express their professional, personal or political views through the publication of their scholarship in journals, through traditional and social media, in public debates on and off campus, and at the ballot box, to name just a few. We have brilliant faculty and graduate students who have the full opportunity to criticize and persuade on all manner of public and controversial issues — just not to the detriment of their students’ own academic endeavors and desires.

Q: What action is the university taking?

President Schlissel: We have apologized to the students themselves and offered any assistance they might need to help them complete their applications.

The denials are being addressed with those involved through the university’s existing personnel policies. The University of Michigan, like other institutions and employers, keeps personnel matters private. There are times, however, when certain documents are released through public records requests.

This has, and continues to be, a topic of discussion with various stakeholders we interact with on and off campus, and it’s good for us to have these conversations.

Finally, Provost Philbert has established a panel to delve more deeply into the broader topic. That panel will involve outreach to the university community.

Q: What will the faculty panel consider?

Provost Philbert: The panel of distinguished faculty members will examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and instructors’ responsibilities to students. As stated previously, the panel’s primary objectives are:

• To examine relevant university policy, including but not limited to statements in the Standard Practice Guide and the Faculty Handbook.

• To gather and review relevant policy statements of peer institutions.

• To gather input from stakeholders across the university.

• To recommend how to clarify current policy or create new policy that clearly articulates institutional principles and expectations at the intersection of faculty members’ responsibilities to students and their own personal views.

The panel is just beginning its work, and it would be premature to discuss implementation of any proposed changes before faculty members have a chance to conduct outreach and do a thorough examination of the issue.

Q: Who is on the panel?

Provost Philbert: The panel is being led by Professor of Science and Engineering and U-M President Emeritus James Duderstadt. Others on the panel include:

• Deborah Ball, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, William H. Payne Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of education, School of Education; and research professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research.

• Susan Collins, Edward M. Gramlich Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy; and professor of economics, LSA.

• Deborah Goldberg, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, associate chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, LSA.

• Don Herzog, Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law and professor of law, Law School; and professor of political science, LSA.

• Bill Lovejoy, Raymond T. J. Perring Family Professor of Business Administration, professor of technology and operations and associate dean for specialty programs, Stephen M. Ross School of Business; and professor of art and design, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design.

Q: Why was this panel established when other requests for committees to examine divestment were rejected?

President Schlissel: The panel is not addressing the university’s opposition to academic boycotts of Israel, nor of any other nation or industry. The panel’s work will address faculty members’ obligations to students as instructors with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support.

As we have repeatedly stated publicly on many occasions: The primary purpose of university investments (through the endowment) is to generate the greatest possible income, subject to the appropriate amount of investment risk, in support of the university’s missions of teaching, research, patient care and service.

The university also has an important commitment to each donor to invest their endowment gift with the goal of providing the most resources possible for the purpose they agreed to support. The university’s longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return.

This approach has been underscored consistently by university leaders, including the Board of Regents. We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee.

Q: Why does U-M oppose a boycott of Israeli academic institutions when other groups have endorsed it?

Provost Philbert: While the university affirms the right of individual faculty and professional academic associations to hold and express different viewpoints, university leaders have stated clearly that they believe academic boycotts violate the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which are fundamental to our missions of education and research.



  1. Timothy Hofer
    on October 31, 2018 at 7:00 am

    As a senior faculty member with almost 30 years on faculty in the medial school, I would say it seems like you should put some younger faculty on that panel. A group of people, nice as they are, all of whom have occupied senior administrative positions is not really representative of the faculty and you will only hear yourselves speak.

    • John Carson
      on October 31, 2018 at 9:31 am

      I agree entirely with Tim Hofer. The committee should not be primarily composed of senior administrators. It should also include a much wider range of stakeholders, including Humanities professors (distinctly absent), undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at a variety of ranks. I wonder how often those on the committee even write letters for undergraduates? I also am discouraged that the term “merit” is deployed as if its meaning is straightforward and context independent. Recommendations always involve considerations of fit: is this person a good applicant for that position? And what factors get to constitute the criteria on which merit is determined are never clear-cut. They have also historically been used to privilege certain outcomes over others.

    • Sueann Caulfield
      on October 31, 2018 at 9:59 am

      I also strongly agree with Professor Hofer. The panel should include diverse voices, including those of junior faculty, post-docs, and research scientists as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

      • Kirsten Herold
        on October 31, 2018 at 10:41 am

        Agreeing with the previous commenters. While the panel is a fine group, it is amazingly un-diverse. Lecturers for example teach the majority of first and second year classes, often teach small classes, and therefore know the students well and are often asked for letters. The committee needs lecturers, junior faculty, research faculty, as well as students.

  2. Jens Zorn
    on October 31, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    I suggest the response: “I will write you a letter of recommendation addressed to a general reader; you are free to forward it to anyone you choose. But I will not fill out a form presented by, or write a letter specifically to an organization that represents views that I regard as morally repugnant.”

  3. Alan Wald
    on October 31, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    In addition to thinking more about the composition of this panel, I would hope that added attention be given to some other matters. First, the authoritative statements expressed in the interview and other communications from the administration, along with the (inappropriate, in my opinion) disciplining of Associate Prof. John Cheney-Lippold as widely reported in the DETROIT FREE PRESS and elsewhere, indicate that a strong view has already been formulated and is already being put into practice–in advance of the necessary gathering of documents, input, etc. These matters should be on hold until there is research and discussion, which certainly means the rescinding of any sanctions against instructors. Second, the statement is dogmatic in repeating that the “deciding factor” for letters concerning grants, jobs, and so on, must be “the student’s effort and ability.” Why wouldn’t we put safety first? Or other concerns? Are we thinking too narrowly because we are only thinking with this one recently instance? It could be that there are many, many other factors that our faculty colleagues regularly take into account. Why not ask them? I would find it reasonable for one to hesitate before sending students off to North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, into a war zone, and elsewhere, even if the student were brilliant and insistent. Third, there is the question of forcing instructors to write letters when it goes against their conscience and ethics—qualities one might hope our students would emulate. As FIRE (a well-respected Free Speech publication) put it in a recent response to the UM case, letters are speech and there is a right not to speak that is central to any reasonable understanding of free speech issues. No instructor should be compelled to write a letter against her will and against her better judgment because she feels threatened by her own institution. For instance, no faculty who strongly supports current Israeli policies should be forced write a letter for a student to intern with BDS. (Please note that, in any event, letters written under coercion might not be the most appropriate way to support student success.) Fourth, this panel and our community must reckon with BDS, no matter how difficult and perhaps painful this will be. Is it enough to just say that the panel will not address the university’s opposition to academic boycotts of Israeli institutions? The sanctioning of Prof. Cheney-Lippold is almost unimaginable without this context, and we should be honest about this. Are we to understand that “outreach” to the community will not allow for discussion of this broader context, including the ability of faculty to respond to and stand in solidarity with a call for this form of nonviolent protest from an international social movement such as BDS?

    Alan Wald, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor Emeritus

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