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November 15, 2018 3:34 pm

ADL Joins With Leading Scholars to Urge New Policy on Faculty Recommendations Following Recent University of Michigan BDS Scandals

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A flag at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Photo: Corey Seeman.

University administrations in the US are being encouraged to adopt explicit guidelines that would prevent academics from refusing to write study-abroad recommendation letters for students based on their political or ideological beliefs.

The decision to craft a “model policy” — drawn up by the Anti-Defamation League in cooperation with the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which brings together scholars opposed to the anti-Israel BDS campaign — was triggered by the recent refusal of two academics at the University of Michigan to write recommendation letters for students wanting to attend universities in Israel.

In both cases — one involving cultural studies Prof. John Cheney-Lippold and the other involving graduate instructor Lucy Petersen — support for the academic boycott campaign targeting Israeli universities was cited as the reason for refusing to supply the requested recommendation letters.

In a joint statement, former University of California President Prof. Mark Yudof, who now chairs the AEN advisory board, and Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s chief executive, highlighted the lack of existing policies to guide university administrators as the primary reason for their initiative.

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“After the University of Michigan incidents, it became obvious that there were gaps in university faculty handbooks regarding writing or refusing requests for letters of recommendation,” Greenblatt said. “This policy makes clear that a professor’s personal politics should never interfere with the academic freedom of their students.”

Commented Yudof: “We believe that most faculty members, administrators, and governing boards understand the need to treat all students with fairness when they wish to study elsewhere. But many universities appear to have no explicit policies on this subject. The model policy is designed to facilitate the adoption of such policies.”

The draft policy would not compel academics to write recommendation letters under all circumstances. “[F]aculty are free to write or refuse to write letters of recommendation based on a range of considerations, including the number of requests, time to fulfill them, familiarity with the requesting student, and an assessment of the student’s work,” the draft policy asserted. “When faculty are asked to write letters of recommendation, their primary considerations ought to be academic merit and the student’s qualifications. At times, faculty may also wish to consider institutional accreditation and quality of the program. But the decision to express or withhold support for students in the form of recommendation letters should not be influenced by political considerations.”

Steven M. Freeman, vice president of the ADL’s civil rights division, told The Algemeiner on Thursday that the advocacy organization would be reaching out to university administrators and faculty through its 25 regional offices.

“This is meant to be a suggestion, a model, and hopefully we’ll be able to start a conversation,” Freeman said. Nor is the ADL insisting that the policy be adopted exactly as drafted, noted Freeman, pointing out that the University of Michigan had already reacted “very strongly” to Prof. Cheney-Lippold’s BDS-influenced decision. “The more important issue is not what the exact language is, but the need to address this situation,” he added.

Prof. Kenneth Waltzer — the executive director of AEN — said that his organization had assembled a list of universities with Yudof’s help “that we are definitely going to approach.”

The list included “most of the large public universities, including the University of Michigan,” Prof. Walzer said. “Most of the University of California schools are there, the big privates are there, and ultimately it’ll go out to the smaller liberal arts colleges.”

Waltzer said that advance discussions with faculty around the country had persuaded the AEN that a model policy would clear away any ambiguities over politically-charged decisions by academics. Adopting the model policy would provide university administrators with “clarity and a declarative statement of key values,” he said.

“The message is, ‘Keep your politics to yourself,'” stated Waltzer.

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