The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs issued a statement Monday declaring that although student merit should be the primary concern in providing letters of recommendation, the decision to write letters must remain in the hands of faculty members.
SACUA Chair Neil Marsh said the executive arm of the central faculty governance system believes that faculty members have the right to reject writing letters of recommendation that go against their personal backgrounds or beliefs.
SACUA’s statement, which was approved by members via email, comes in the wake of a recent incident where a U-M faculty member refused to provide a previously promised letter of recommendation for a student because she sought to study in Israel.
In the statement, SACUA reasserted its commitment to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Professional Ethics, which stresses that a student’s merit should be the primary concern in providing letters of recommendation, and that faculty members “have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.”
However, in the statement, SACUA expressed its concern that a disciplinary letter recently issued to the faculty member by LSA Interim Dean Elizabeth R. Cole “may have a chilling effect on members of the academic community who may, for legitimate and deeply held personal reasons, feel uncomfortable about providing letters to certain organizations or individuals.”
“Such discomfort is fully in accord with the principle of intellectual integrity that is the core of academic freedom and does not represent ‘exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students,’ which is deprecated by the AAUP,” the statement reads.
“SACUA asserts that recommendation letters represent the personal endorsement of the writer and, as such, the decision to write any letter must remain the prerogative of the author; faculty members should not have to fear reprisal for declining to write a letter,” the statement continues.
“To the extent that any member of our academic community feels coerced into providing a recommendation letter, or stating opinions that he or she does not believe, the integrity of the recommendation is tarnished and the academic freedom that is central to our university is impugned.”
SACUA’s statement expands on an original statement the committee approved in September, which affirmed its commitment to the AAUP guidelines and was cited in Cole’s disciplinary letter to the professor in question.
“We got a lot of comments from various faculty members who expressed concern that our statement was being used to justify disciplinary action, which is not what we intended it to be. We didn’t know there would be disciplinary action. We just simply put it out,” Marsh said.
“The other thing that we heard from faculty members was that they were concerned that if they for whatever reason declined to write a letter, then they might face some kind of discipline.
“We wanted to produce a statement that both affirmed our original statement and made it clear that we think that there are valid reasons where faculty members may not wish to write letters and that ultimately the choice as to somebody writes a letter or not has to be theirs.”