Professor sanctioned for refusing to write a recommendation letter
October 10, 2018 1:53 PM   Subscribe

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has disciplined a professor who retracted his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wished to study in Israel. After the associate professor refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student, the student went public about it, the professor was sanctioned by not getting his merit raise and his planned sabbatical was cancelled and he cannot apply for sabbatical for 2 years.

Background on what happen in this WaPo piece. The University is forming a panel of faculty members to examine its policy to ensure that the political views of employees do not interfere with their responsibilities to students. The sanctions on Professor Cheney-Lippold are considered outside of the scope of the norm to some. Some graduate student instructors have similarly refused, but sanctions on them have not yet been announced.
posted by k8t (148 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Michigan has a notoriously strong graduate student union, so I suspect that the graduate students will fair better than the faculty member did.
posted by k8t at 1:54 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Lots of my faculty friends at UM are nervous now and are considering not doing any letters of recommendation for now. Myself? I'm not at UM, but it does make me nervous because there are a few organizations that I refuse to write letters of recommendation for. To the best of my knowledge, my university has no such policy on these matters.
posted by k8t at 1:54 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]




I mean- a letter of recommendation should be based on whether or not you believe a student has the academic merit to deserve it not where they are going to study- so I'm not sure why this is a bad outcome? He put politics in front of his responsibility to his students and I'd feel exactly the same way if an Israeli professor did the same thing to a student going to study in Iran or Saudi Arabia.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:03 PM on October 10 [56 favorites]


I’m not an academic but...I don’t understand why a professor would withold a recommendation based on the receiving organization? I mean, if the student does good work isn’t that all the recommendation is about?

I’ve given references for former staff to competitors and organizations I didn’t think much of because my staff did good work and it’s not my job to get in their way.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:06 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


Is a recommendation letter not a recommendation of the student and their abilities "to whom it may concern"?

I don't see a recommendation letter as an endorsement of the addressee, and I don't see why anyone would.
posted by tclark at 2:11 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Lots of my faculty friends at UM are nervous now and are considering not doing any letters of recommendation for now.

I mean, that seems really reactionary and also like refusing to fulfill a basic work duty and punishing all their students who have worked hard and need those letters?

I would be interested to hear which organizations you won't write letters for. Maybe a central letter bank like Berkeley uses would be a solution, so the letters can be used for wherever the students choose to apply, although that thing is impossible to work with and I hate it.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:12 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


Lots of my faculty friends at UM are nervous now and are considering not doing any letters of recommendation for now.

I see lots of Republicans saying that they'll quietly stop hiring women because they're nervous about being falsely accused of sexual harassment or worse. This kind of reactionary, played-for-the-peanut-gallery "nervousness" is toxic.
posted by tclark at 2:15 PM on October 10 [93 favorites]


This will not go well for the university.

Letter writing is a professional courtesy rather than a part of a professor's job description and is done at a professor's discretion. You cannot and should not force people to write letters regardless of what their reason for refusing is.

My wife writes somewhere around 150 reference letters a year because each requester needs multiple letters usually multiple times over several years. It's so onerous that she imposes a structure on letter requesters - a spreadsheet with required fields before she will even do them now

also like refusing to fulfill a basic work duty


Find me a faculty contract that specifies reference letter writing as a basic duty.
posted by srboisvert at 2:15 PM on October 10 [68 favorites]


Dude, find me anyone in academia whose contract specifies even half of what they have to do.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:16 PM on October 10 [65 favorites]


Pull up the letter behind you, I guess
posted by thelonius at 2:16 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]


Yeah, this is just one outcome of a system that is pretty messed up to begin with, both for students and professors.
posted by gwint at 2:17 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Writing letters of recommendation is not a job duty for faculty.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:18 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]


I’m not an academic but...I don’t understand why a professor would withold a recommendation based on the receiving organization? I mean, if the student does good work isn’t that all the recommendation is about?

Given that he'd been talking in class about BDS and had previously written a couple of letters for students going to Israel (the Detroit News article linked in the main article), it looks as though maybe his views on this were evolving and, like a lot of recent converts to one cause or another, he was looking for a way to Make A Statement about the Palestinians and this was the opportunity immediately at hand?

I also don't see a tremendous injustice in how the professor is being treated. There are plenty of ways to participate in raising awareness about/boycotting Israel, if that's his thing, without making someone over whom he has institutional authority into an unwilling participant.
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:20 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]


Depending on the student/professor relationship withholding a recommendation letter can be a pretty serious act of professional sabotage — essentially ending a student’s career.

This doesn’t seem to be that extreme of the case, but it’s totally possible that without this specific professor’s letter, the student would have had no chance of ever getting accepted to the program, so effectively the professor might have been forbidding the student from studying in Tel Aviv.

Maybe this is legitimate depending on your political views but it’s a lot of power to hand to professors. I’m not sure where the line ought to be drawn.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:20 PM on October 10 [8 favorites]


I guess if you don't mentor undergrads, or supervise them in research, or teach any capstone courses in an undergrad major, and you are not a committee chair to any graduate students, then you'll be fine.

Otherwise, that position will directly damage your advisees and mentees ability to move on in jobs or academia. But no worries, it's not in your contract.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:21 PM on October 10 [12 favorites]


Writing rec letters is a professional courtesy, though. You can refuse to write a letter for anyone, at any time. I don't really agree with this professor's approach, but it's not an abdication of his professional duties, nor, since it's not based on the identity of the student, can it readily be said to be discriminatory in the legal sense.
posted by praemunire at 2:22 PM on October 10 [11 favorites]


Dude, find me anyone in academia whose contract specifies even half of what they have to do.

This is not an excuse, it is something the academy uses to abuse people, and they deserve to lose horribly in the courts because they don't spell out the obligations a professor has.

You want letters of recommendation to be a job duty? Then say so. Otherwise, why should anyone back that obligation up?
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:22 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


Good. The professor was being discriminatory against the student. I doubt that they would have refused to write a letter for study in some other country involved in conflicts or controversial human rights issues such as China, Russia or a Muslim country [or easily the US, if coming from abroad]
posted by knoyers at 2:23 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


A study abroad letter is NOT the same as a job letter.
posted by k8t at 2:24 PM on October 10 [8 favorites]


I don't think writing letters should be mandatory in all cases. I fully support faculty declining to write letters under a number of conditions. But I think supporting students into the next phase - graduate school or jobs - is part of what you commit to when you mentor or advise/chair them. If someone has done a great job with you, writing a letters is part of the support of them you have committed to. To have someone RA for you for four years and perform really, really well and then refuse them a letter because you've got out your little yellow highlighter and gone through your contract line by line to prove you don't have to is putrid.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:29 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


a letter of recommendation should be based on whether or not you believe a student has the academic merit to deserve it not where they are going to study

From this controversy, it's obvious that not everyone agrees with this statement. And I don't think it's that simple.

What if a student asked for a letter of recommendation to a program that you knew was a scam? I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that and would want to refuse. I could argue that I was protecting the student's welfare, but that has nothing to do with the students' academic merit.

What if a student asked for a letter of recommendation for an evangelical missionary organization? I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that either. I think that these organizations can be harmful to communities that I am concerned about, in ways that are directly relevant to some of my research interests (e.g. documentary linguistics and language preservation). My ethical obligations as an academic would be in conflict with this framing of my responsibilities to the student.

What if a student asked for a letter of recommendation for an explicitly hateful organization, like a policy institute backed by far-right white male supremacists? What if some of its positions were explicitly hateful towards me, the letter writer? I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that either. Empathy would make me make me uncomfortable doing it even if they're only hateful to other identities, as well.

None of these are exactly the same as this case, but that's the point - even though they're not about the student's academic merit, I don't think it would play out the same way if I refused. In other words, I don't think that the controversy is really about the professor refusing to write a letter based on something other than academic merit. I think it's really about whether or not people think the boycott of Israel is justified, which is an incredibly controversial and super heated topic.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:30 PM on October 10 [144 favorites]


Otherwise, that position will directly damage your advisees and mentees ability to move on in jobs or academia. But no worries, it's not in your contract.

First off, given the current scandal with Rubenfeld and Chua at Yale Law, perhaps it's time to rethink the whole recommendation system in the first place, if it's so potentially damaging to students.

Second, if it's not in your contract, it's not a work duty. That's how employment law works, and perhaps it's time for academia to be brought up to speed.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:30 PM on October 10 [12 favorites]


Ding ding ding! Kutsuwamushi has it.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:31 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Probably the strict legal definitions should constrain universities in how they discipline employees, but as it stands the actual reality of academia is this weird master-apprentice medieval guild system.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:34 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


I guess if you don't mentor undergrads, or supervise them in research, or teach any capstone courses in an undergrad major, and you are not a committee chair to any graduate students, then you'll be fine.

Otherwise, that position will directly damage your advisees and mentees ability to move on in jobs or academia. But no worries, it's not in your contract.


Professors can absolutely destroy someone's future and I hate this aspect of academia. However, compulsory reference letter writing isn't the solution. All it would do is destroy the minimal value that reference letters have as it is. Every experienced academic knows the code phrases that can torpedo references and the "contact me if you have further questions" line is generally taken as "you better call because I can't put the shit I am going to say in writing".

I got into grad school without a reference letter from my undergraduate thesis advisor (The funny thing about testifying against him in university court is you then don't ask for a reference letter no matter how good your grades were). If you are absolutely dependent on a few particular profs for your reference letters then you probably sucked as a student.

I don't even disagree that this is kind of discriminatory and maybe unfair to the student.

The thing is you "ask" for reference letters. And when you ask for something "no" is an answer you have to accept. You don't get to demand or command them.

The solution for the student is to bounce to the next possible reference writer.
posted by srboisvert at 2:35 PM on October 10 [28 favorites]


The other problem is- discrimination isn't in the intent it's in the outcome. So it doesn't matter if the intent is good- (And as a non-Zionist I can see that the intent is good) but if this kind of policy means that 90% of the declined students to study abroad are Jewish that is a winnable lawsuit waiting to happen. That's why the University is jumping on this, its very very bad optics when Jewish students are being declined to study abroad while say other students are given recommendation letters to go to China (Tibet/Uighur concentration camps) or other students are given recommendation letters to go to Saudi Arabia (women's rights, proxy wars in Yemen etc).
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:37 PM on October 10 [12 favorites]


If someone has done a great job with you, writing a letters is part of the support of them you have committed to. To have someone RA for you for four years and perform really, really well and then refuse them a letter because you've got out your little yellow highlighter and gone through your contract line by line to prove you don't have to is putrid.

If this is such an important job duty as you say, then it should be clearly spelled out in the professor's contract, because that's how you handle important job duties.

Probably the strict legal definitions should constrain universities in how they discipline employees, but as it stands the actual reality of academia is this weird master-apprentice medieval guild system.

Which is a horribly abusive system that needs to die there, like it did everywhere else.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:38 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


The last link about the other graduate student who refused to do this includes this enlightening quote from the father of the student:

The student’s father said he was at first so angry that he weighed pulling his son out of the school. He reconsidered, as his wife reached out to the president’s office, which put them in touch with the associate dean, who “offered to write any letter Jake wanted,” he said.

Still, he thinks there should be “disciplinary action against the teachers.”

“I don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue. The university has a fiduciary responsibility to students,” he said, equating the school to a corporation whose shareholders, students, are owed certain returns.


I cant say i share his view of what academia should be about or that i have a ton of sympathy for him or the administration (really curious what the dean who was going to write any letter Jake wanted was going to include in that letter since it seems their relationship began when he complained about being turned down the first time).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:38 PM on October 10 [19 favorites]


"I mean- a letter of recommendation should be based on whether or not you believe a student has the academic merit to deserve it not where they are going to study"

Isn't it entirely discretionary, like, ultimately it comes down to whether they feel like doing it or not. Seems like they should be able to choose whether to give them or not for any or no reason whatsoever.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:43 PM on October 10


This is not an excuse, it is something the academy uses to abuse people, and they deserve to lose horribly in the courts because they don't spell out the obligations a professor has.

Well, once upon a time, The Academy was governed by the faculty, and so a sanction from the academy against a professor was a sanction from his peers for failure to carry out the duties expected of a peer member of the academy.

The transition from faculty governance to today's academic kakistocracy is worthy of its own Metafilter discussion, but if you're going to be a professor, it's incumbent on you to know and to influence the obligations that come with your job, to expect that they will evolve, that they will not necessarily be explicitly spelled out, and to take part in the process that shapes them.

The only problem I have with this story is that he is being sanctioned by admins rather than the faculty.
posted by ocschwar at 2:44 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


Find me a faculty contract that specifies reference letter writing as a basic duty.

Reminds me of the scene from A Few Good Men, where Kaffee asks Barnes to show him where in the manual it tells him where the mess hall is. The manual, and the contract, doesn't cover everything you need to know or do.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:44 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


If they are mandatory then they have no value whatsoever. A transcript would server the same function. Yes, they were a student here.
posted by Megafly at 2:45 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


but if you're going to be a professor, it's incumbent on you to know and to influence the obligations that come with your job, to expect that they will evolve, that they will not necessarily be explicitly spelled out, and to take part in the process that shapes them.

Here's the thing - when you don't spell out what a job entails, you set up a situation ripe for abuse. It's why unions fight bitterly over job definitions during collective bargaining.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:50 PM on October 10 [16 favorites]


Seems like they should be able to choose whether to give them or not for any or no reason whatsoever.

"I saw that you had a politician's bumper sticker on your car. I really, really like that politician. For this reason alone, I'm not going to hit you with a speeding ticket, which I'm allowed to do at my personal discretion. Oh, by the way, you were going 90 mph in a school zone, and I literally ticketed another person an hour ago for the same infraction. They didn't have the right bumper sticker, though. Have a nice day."

Now how do you feel?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:51 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


I think Kutsuwamushi has it exactly right.

I'd also like to add, for anybody saying that letter writing should be compulsory, you still can't make them write a good letter. When a student asks me for a letter, if I don't think they are well-qualified or whatever then I will say something like "Just so you know, I will be honest about both your strengths and weaknesses, specifically X and Y", and give them the option to change their mind. Nothing is making me do that except empathy and a belief in fairness. And nothing is making any compulsory letter-writer do that either; in lieu of withholding the letter they could simply write a bad one. This would be even worse for the student, and it's basically a guaranteed outcome at least some of the time if you make letter writing compulsory.
posted by dbx at 2:55 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


Now how do you feel?

Writing a letter of recommendation isn't the law ffs, and I say this as someone who is counting on a letter of recommendation for my entire academic future.

I don't agree with this professor's judgment here, but I also think those are some pretty heavy penalties for refusing to write a letter, and they set a really bad precedent. The father talks as though this is something your tuition pays for, which is bullshit.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:56 PM on October 10 [51 favorites]


Why yes, that orange is quite different from the apple we're discussing. There is a vast difference from selective enforcement of the law, which is designed and intended to be held to all of us equally, and a professor choosing to extend an inherently subjective professional courtesy.

And again, considering what's happening at Yale Law and NYU, perhaps the actual answer here is that the recommendation system as it stands is a harmful anachronism that needs to die.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:56 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


A study abroad letter is NOT the same as a job letter.

Well...why isn't it? Like okay, if the program is a scam, tell the student it is and that's why you're not writing a letter. But not writing a letter because you don't agree with the politics of the country in which the program is located sounds kind of nuts to me. Maybe it's not but whoa.

If this is such an important job duty as you say, then it should be clearly spelled out in the professor's contract, because that's how you handle important job duties.

With the quantity of letters I understand professors have to write maybe that is fair based on volume.

I totally agree that if the student's work is poor, no letter. There are people I have supervised where I couldn't provide a reference and I've let them know that. I also have worked for an organization whose policy was not to provide references and I've let them know that up front as well. But forming a relationship with someone with the tacit understanding that good work will probably result in a reference letter (within parameters, like "I only have time to write 50 a year so get your requests in early/have other names in mind") and then pulling the reference because you want to make a statement just seems stone cold to me.

But dude, I have supervised a ton of interns and staff in my career and I no longer work for the organizations I was under contract to and I darn well provide references when asked for people who did a good job, especially to former interns, because the networking and professional courtesy is part of being a professional, especially in my former field. Sometimes I think people who have only worked in academia (which does have strange demands) think that other people never ever do anything at work which they are not required to do.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:58 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


Recommendations only mean something if there are criteria, but they also stop meaning something if the perceived criteria is "level of the student's work and abilities" but the actual criteria for providing recommendations are completely not-that. This is not as distant as, say, only offering recommendations in exchange for money or sexual favors, but still, I can see there being a legit question about whether this is too far or not. If recommendations are professionally meaningful, they can't be completely discretionary.
posted by Sequence at 2:59 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


I don't agree with this professor's judgment here, but I also think those are some pretty heavy penalties for refusing to write a letter, and they set a really bad precedent. The father talks as though this is something your tuition pays for, which is bullshit.

Most students borrow for college, using loans that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

That should be reason enough to take a deep, deep breath before letting your views about the Middle East influence a decision on what you should do with a student who worked with you long enough for a letter of recommendation to be an appropriate request. Lord knows there are lots of other ways to make a stance about the Middle East.
posted by ocschwar at 3:01 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


But forming a relationship with someone with the tacit understanding that good work will probably result in a reference letter (within parameters, like "I only have time to write 50 a year so get your requests in early/have other names in mind") and then pulling the reference because you want to make a statement just seems stone cold to me.

Tacit understandings, much like verbal contracts, are worth the paper they are written on. Besides, I would imagine that if this student had actually developed a relationship with the professor, he would have known the answer to begin with. From the father's response, it's clear that this was viewed purely transactionally.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:05 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


That should be reason enough to take a deep, deep breath before letting your views about the Middle East influence a decision on what you should do with a student who worked with you long enough for a letter of recommendation to be an appropriate request. Lord knows there are lots of other ways to make a stance about the Middle East.

It's okay to take a stance on human rights as long as it doesn't inconvenience someone
posted by edeezy at 3:06 PM on October 10 [30 favorites]


If this is such an important job duty as you say, then it should be clearly spelled out in the professor's contract, because that's how you handle important job duties.

Sure, but that's really not the student's fault or problem. The student hasn't read the professor's contract, isn't a party to it, and didn't pick their choice of university based on whether writing letters of recommendation is defined as a faculty job duty. They presumably did pick their choice of university based in part on the fact that it advertises study abroad opportunities.

From the student's perspective, they're a customer of an extraordinarily expensive business. That doesn't entitle them to straight As or unearned recommendations on demand, but it's extraordinarily aggravating to think someone is taking on a lifetime of debt so a faculty member can play the "not in my contract" card over something that everyone fully acknowledges is part of how the system, as it exists right now, works.

Should it be spelled out in faculty contracts? That would make sense, but that's really of little concern to the individual student who needs a letter.

The father talks as though this is something your tuition pays for, which is bullshit.

Why though? Your tuition very much does not pay for recommendations that you haven't earned, or dishonest ones, but study abroad opportunities are explicitly advertised on the university's admissions (sales) website. If doing that requires a letter of recommendation, there's a pretty reasonable expectation that the university is going to provide those within the bounds of ethics and honesty.
posted by zachlipton at 3:07 PM on October 10 [8 favorites]


Lots of commenters here have a purely transactional view of a professor's duties too, Nox. Which for non-tenured faculty is fine. But once you're tenured, that is no longer fine.
posted by ocschwar at 3:09 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


My personal read here is that the professor was in the wrong for witholding the letter, but the punishment was disproportionate. Also, if it wasn't an Israel/Palestine thing then this wouldn't be nearly the shitstorm that it is.

And sure, the academy should be fundamentally reformed to make it less hideously dysfunctional, but that seems kind of outside the scope of this discussion.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:09 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


If the student wanted to study at the University of Pretoria in 1980 and the professor declined to write the letter because South Africa was an unrepentant Apartheid state, would they have been disciplined?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:09 PM on October 10 [27 favorites]


Lots of commenters here have a purely transactional view of a professor's duties too, Nox. Which for non-tenured faculty is fine. But once you're tenured, that is no longer fine.

Why, exactly? What is so magical and special about tenure that suddenly the professor is no longer an employed worker?
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:12 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Oh crap, I skimmed over the part where they said it was just for a semester abroad.

OK, I still think it's bad judgment to rescind a letter like that. I don't think that's a great way to have handled this, and for the student, it must have seemed arbitrary. Why not at least talk about her decision? I'm up to my eyeballs in student debt, so I'm definitely sympathetic to the position the student was in.

But also, given the low stakes, those penalties are suuuper bullshit. No merit pay and sabbatical canceled for two years? Over a letter for one semester of study abroad? Jesus. I'd been thinking this was for grad school.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:13 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Why, exactly? What is so magical and special about tenure that suddenly the professor is no longer an employed worker?

Do I really have to spell out why tenure is a privilege that's pretty special compared to at-will employment?
posted by ocschwar at 3:14 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Apparently.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:16 PM on October 10


So we start off with a letter that was offered and later rescinded because the professor objected to whom the recommendation was being made, and nothing to do with the student's ability or qualifications.

Now it's "compulsory recommendations"?

Talk about moving goalposts.
posted by tclark at 3:17 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


Michigan has a notoriously strong graduate student union - notoriously? When I was a member of GEO it just listened to its members and fought successfully for benefits.
posted by doctornemo at 3:18 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Also, if it wasn't an Israel/Palestine thing then this wouldn't be nearly the shitstorm that it is

Or a post on Metafilter, most likely. Which is a shame, because I really do think the whole system of recommendations in universities needs to be rethought out.
posted by gwint at 3:20 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


Do I really have to spell out why tenure is a privilege that's pretty special compared to at-will employment?

Yes, because from where I'm sitting, a lot of the endemic problems that plague academia stem in part because of how academia views tenure. So please, tell me why it's okay to use the too oft abused practice of nebulous duty requirements for tenured professors.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:20 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


This is well played by Read:
Cheney-Lippold wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.”

The university quickly separated itself from the professor’s remarks, noting that none of its departments supports the academic boycott of Israel proposed by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS.

posted by doctornemo at 3:21 PM on October 10


Which is a shame, because I really do think the whole system of recommendations in universities needs to be rethought out.

As I said a few times in this thread, the fiascos at NYU and Yale Law make that abundantly clear.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:22 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I'm only academic staff, so of course no tenure, BUT ALSO extremely limited ability to decline things that are not in my job description!! Lucky me!! (We're not fancy enough to get a contract that actually states, to the letter, the only things we have to do and nothing more.)

So I have to do every stupid thing the department chair asks! All the nebulous things, yeah! Color me a little jealous that with all the privilege I see faculty experiencing all day around me, including being able to foist off on me shit they could easily do themselves, I get a little crabby about people being precious about what's in their contract.
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:26 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I think Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The has hit it on the head: it's utterly a shit thing for the professor to do post hoc. It'd be one thing for the professor to say, when first approached by the student, "no, I can't write you a letter" and to leave it at that. To do it retroactively? For political reasons? I'm not surprised that the professor got disciplined, but that's pretty disproportionate.

More broadly, for recommendation letters to mean anything - and, in the US system, they very much do - professors need to be able to say no, because otherwise they're not useful. The alternative that's been mooted in this thread, of mandatory letters, means that they're basically worthless (because all they indicate is whether the student was present, and they push more of the communication out of a written record and further in to backchannels). There's already plenty of that, because a lot of academic communities are small and Professor A at University X knows Professor C at University G because they go to conferences / were grad school buddies / etc, and a lot of information gets passed along through those channels. Nuke the recommendation letter, and it's all going in that channel. That said, I could see an argument for a subtype of recommendation letters that replace the "student A was in my class of Wombat-Juggling 201 and did well" because those aren't informative. Which, seemingly, is what this situation was.

I also noticed Squeak Attack's comment about letter services - they're more of a thing for letters after graduation, and Berkeley's is awesomely bad (I looked into using it, ran the numbers, remembered Berkeley's usual approach to bureaucratic processes and went with a private service), but they're shifting the landscape for what I think of as real recommendation letters in interesting ways too, in so much as they can't handle personalized letters for each job/submission, and have recommenders upload a generic. That's a bit outside the scope of this conversation, though.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 3:26 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]


fought successfully for benefits

I think that's probably why.

Do I really have to spell out why tenure is a privilege that's pretty special compared to at-will employment?

It's a little much to see a particular protection for a specific occupation be used as a cudgel against dissent within that occupation. Especially when seemingly every other occupation is lined up behind at-will and ignorant of greener pastures.

I think Nox has it right. If a university expects an entrenched faculty member to be handing out rec letters then that should really be a part of the job description. Because if it's just expected to happen, regardless of whether or not that particular faculty member thinks it's good for any or all of the reasons gone into above, then perhaps the whole thing will begin to lose credibility at last. Or at least become more explicitly transaction based than it already is.
posted by Slackermagee at 3:27 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Again, this shouldn't be considered in the same league as a graduate school recommendation that has tremendous weight on a student's future and very few people can write them and the letter writer's reputation factors in.
Study abroad letters, in my experience at 3 universities, are 10-15 minute long endeavors saying that to the best of my knowledge the student isn't an eff up. TAs write them. Anyone can write them.
posted by k8t at 3:31 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


It's okay to take a stance on human rights as long as it doesn't inconvenience someone

i mean. so then it's okay that this stance taken has inconvenienced the professor.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:31 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I'm only academic staff, so of course no tenure, BUT ALSO extremely limited ability to decline things that are not in my job description!! Lucky me!! (We're not fancy enough to get a contract that actually states, to the letter, the only things we have to do and nothing more.)

The University I work at handles that by adding the line "other duties as assigned" to our job descriptions. It's abused about as often as you'd expect (assuming your expectation is "often").
posted by Uncle Ira at 3:46 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Corey Robin, on point:
Whatever you may think about the ethics of withholding a letter of recommendation for a student in accordance with BDS, you should think very carefully through this punitive action by the University of Michigan. The punishment for this professor will be: a) no merit raise during the 2018-19 academic year; b) no sabbatical, which he's due in January, and no sabbatical for two years after that; c) additional discipline, up to and including dismissal, if a similar incident occurs in the future.

Further, the UM takes the position that "in the future, a student's merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation."

The UM also criticizes the professor for explaining to his students his reasoning about the letter of recommendation in one class session: "You did not honor your responsibility to teach your students the material on your syllabus related to your field of expertise. Although this material was discussed in only one session, an entire class period represents a significant portion of your total contact hours with students over the semester. This use of class time to discuss your personal opinions was a misuse of your role as a faculty member."

Some basic points.
1. Professors frequently refuse to write letters of recommendation because they are too busy with their own things or just too lazy. I've never heard of a university administration or even department chair doing anything about this. Whatever the legal dimensions of this case, it brings out just how fucked up is our political culture that genuine dereliction of duty goes far less remarked than a principled political stance. I remember this so well from organizing in grad school: don't show up for a class because something else is going on in your life, no problem; don't show up because you're on strike? The end of the world. This isn't just a double standard among punitive administrators: I suspect this applies to a great many people, who'd never think twice about a colleague not writing a letter of rec, but who'd have to give a case like this an extraordinary amount of thought.
2. The day after the 2016 election, hundreds of thousands of professors spent their entire class talking to their students about the election. Similarly, the day after 9/11. And no one thought anything of it. Yet one professor spends a class explaining his reasoning for why he won't write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to a program in Israel? Not "honoring your responsibility."
3. Imagine a boycott movement develops in law schools, with entire faculties refusing to send on students to work as law clerks for the Supreme Court until the faculties can be assured that no sexual predators are sitting on the bench. That would be greeted, I'd suspect, in many of the quarters that are now praising the UM (or criticizing this UM professor) as an excellent move of concerted action. (I'm sure you can come up with other scenarios, either collective or individual: say a professor didn't want to write a letter of recommendation for someone to go work for an organization that was promoting white nationalism or rape culture, to go to work promoting the work of Richard Spencer, or an organization that was trying to eliminate civil rights protections. I'd also be reluctant to force a Catholic professor on the right to write letters of recommendation for students to go to work for a pro-choice organization.)
I do understand why some people might feel squeamish about denying a student a letter of recommendation. It feels as if it's targeted at an individual, who will suffer because of the professor's political beliefs. I'd merely point out that that is true of most collective action. Go on strike, your students will be denied their education. Do a grade strike, their transcripts will be compromised. If you're a nurse or a doctor, patients may be harmed.

It's a truth not universally acknowledged: you can't have concerted action like a strike or a boycott without some costs. The question is whether those costs are justified, are as narrowly tailored as possible, and whether they have some possibility of bringing about the end they seek. Conversely, you have to ask yourself whether in punishing that concerted action you are harming some fundamental good, like the right of association and speech, and/or punitively acting against an activity that in other non-political circumstances, you'd ignore (i.e., professors simply not writing letters of rec because they're too lazy or too busy).
posted by standardasparagus at 3:52 PM on October 10 [58 favorites]


I'd probably get more involved with this if this didn't directly touch on the Israel/Palestine thing.

As it is, and because of that, I'm not going to touch it with a 39½ foot pole.
posted by Quackles at 4:01 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


In my non-academic job, if I were sanctioned this heavily I'd assume that it was time for me to start looking for another job. How realistic is that sort of approach, in this context?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:07 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


He's tenured, so his job is probably fine. Nixing sabbatical opportunities, though, interferes with his research and, therefore, delays his promotion chances. If UM merit pay goes to base salary, there are knock-on effects to losing it as well.

[Disclaimer: taught at UM for one year as a sabbatical replacement prior to getting my current job.]
posted by thomas j wise at 4:15 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I guess I just mean that something like this would so profoundly and lastingly damage my relationship with my employer that I'd want to end it and start a new one. Is that really possible here, or is he pretty much stuck at UM until the end of time, even if he comes to hate it utterly?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:18 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I agree with a previous poster. A study abroad letter is not the same as a job letter.
posted by unachicadesevilla at 4:22 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


If the guideline's supposed to be primarily the "student's merit," then doesn't their desire to study in an apartheid state and to request a letter from an outspoken opponent of that apartheid state demonstrate a lack of merit?
posted by explosion at 4:35 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


The University I work at handles that by adding the line "other duties as assigned" to our job descriptions.

Ftr literally every job I've ever had has done this and it's a notorious vector for abuse. It's not limited to academia.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:35 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]


I'm a university staff member in a student-support position, and I'm literally not allowed to tell a student that I won't write a letter for them. I can tell the student that the letter I would write would not be helpful, and I can write a letter that, while not overtly negative, will definitely not help the student's chances, but I can't say no. I have, on a couple of occasions, told a student that they should ask someone else because my letter would not be helpful and had the student insist that I write it anyway, and I have very carefully written a letter that damned with the faintest of praise. (This student usually shows up on time to appointments. His emails to me are concise and grammatically correct. He has achieved good grades in some of his classes.) But yeah, I can't say no, and I absolutely have written recommendation letters to organizations that I found fairly abhorrent.

So anyway, if you want to know what happens to students whose professors won't write recommendations for them, the answer is that I do it, because I'm not entitled to be busy or morally pure. And honestly, I think that most study abroad programs don't care very much about recommendations, and for those purposes my not-at-all-optional letter is probably just as good as Professor High-and-Mighty's would be.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:36 PM on October 10 [19 favorites]


Whatever the legal dimensions of this case, it brings out just how fucked up is our political culture that genuine dereliction of duty goes far less remarked than a principled political stance.

I mean, I would hope professors wouldn't do that, but here's the thing. My inclination is to think that the sanctions here are way more than warranted, but if you just refuse to write recommendations to anybody, at least in theory, that doesn't do any harm to any particular group, it just categorically is not helpful to your students. If you start picking reasons to give these letters that don't have to do with merit, then certain people are getting advantages over others. Not that this guy is necessarily an anti-Semite, but I think there's good reason to take a closer look at this sort of behavior when it could have disproportionate impact to students from certain protected classes in particular.
posted by Sequence at 4:37 PM on October 10


I should probably say that I haven't written damning-with-faint-praise letters because I found the organization abhorrent. I've written those letters because I couldn't honestly praise the student in any other terms. Sometimes I just don't know the student very well, and it's really hard to write a good recommendation for someone you barely know.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:39 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I see lots of Republicans saying that they'll quietly stop hiring women because they're nervous about being falsely accused of sexual harassment or worse. This kind of reactionary, played-for-the-peanut-gallery "nervousness" is toxic.

They were already not hiring women. They are just using this as an excuse now .
posted by srboisvert at 4:41 PM on October 10 [13 favorites]


Well, maybe I'm just being old and cantankerous but if the professor would just claim "I couldn't write it because of my Christian religious beliefs", we could all sit back and watch people freak out.
He could have his cake and eat it too while others can dine on the large amount of egg on their face!
posted by Muncle at 4:44 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I see lots of Republicans saying that they'll quietly stop hiring women because they're nervous about being falsely accused of sexual harassment or worse. This kind of reactionary, played-for-the-peanut-gallery "nervousness" is toxic.

There's, uh, some precedent that suggests that professors have reason to be nervous about taking strong stances on Israel/Palestine. The idea that writing letters of recommendation in general is now fraught seems iffy but your comparison also seems pretty iffy.
posted by atoxyl at 4:55 PM on October 10


I think this was a pretty shitty way to approach the issue, because retracting a letter you already offered comes off as petty and personal far more than it does principled. But I don't think it's a prof's duty to write you a letter, either.
posted by atoxyl at 4:59 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


The idea that writing letters of recommendation in general is now fraught seems iffy but your comparison also seems pretty iffy.

I don't discount how fraught it can be, but "now they're so nervous they're thinking they just won't write letters at all anymore" is just the sort of grandstanding drama that I've seen tenured profs get the vapors over time and again. My comparison is precisely as I state in my comment. It's playing to the peanut gallery. It's childish. I contend the comparison is apt.
posted by tclark at 5:03 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


The facts in this case seem parallel to the situation in Masterpiece Cakes v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the professor's position is even stronger than the homophobic baker's:
1) Writing a letter is a clearly expressive act, while baking a cake is just arguably expressive;
2) Letters of recommendation are at the higher end of expressive acts, because the author has to put themselves in the shoes of the recipient in order to explain why the candidate would be a good match; bakers just need to meet a commercial standard;
3) The author of a letter of recommendation has consented to further the recipient's goals, while a baker has merely consented to supply a need;
4) Letters of recommendation are necessarily associated with the author and carry their name, but the identity of a baker is not necessarily disclosed to the people eating a cake;
5) Letters of recommendation permanently associate the author with the candidate and the recipient, and may be passed on to third parties; but once a cake is eaten, it's gone.

I didn't think the baker had much of a case, although if they had won I'd have said "so much for the First Amendment". But this case seems much stronger. Why are people reaching for "it's not in his job description" rather than "a government body can't compel someone to perform an expressive act"?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:17 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


Joe in Australia - the professor is the wielder of government power here not the target of it, punishing someone for the political-and-or-religious sentiment that leads one to wish to study in Isreael notwithstanding (or because) of its policies.
posted by MattD at 5:39 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I don't know about the Cakes case, but the wiki says Ginsburg and Sotomayor were dissenting. The Supreme Court only reversed the Commission because it made inconsistent rulings and was demonstrably overtly hostile towards religious beliefs.
posted by polymodus at 5:40 PM on October 10


A faculty member has no obligation to eat lunch with any of their students, but if a faculty member does eat lunch with students yet refuses to eat lunch with a particular subset of students, the University is entirely within its rights (and in some cases required by law) to inquire whether the basis for that refusal is discriminatory in an unacceptable (or illegal) way.
posted by straight at 6:04 PM on October 10



What if a student asked for a letter of recommendation to a program that you knew was a scam?

this is as simple as these problems get. what you do is you tell the student what you know about the program, and you also explain how you know it. Since they will have made an appointment to discuss their plans with you and refresh your memory about their qualifications and interests, you will have ample opportunity to talk it out. A student who can't recognize a scam program is in desperate need of academic guidance and mentoring. a rec letter and nothing more would be negligent.

In a different but not completely unrelated scenario, I was asked for a grad rec letter once by a former student I had taught but didn't know at all and barely remembered. I wrote back to them and explained that a letter from a professor who knew them well, particularly one from their major department, particularly one who had taught them in more than one course, would carry much more weight with an admissions committee than a letter from a TA who had only taught them in a single low-level class a couple years ago and had never seen a paper or other advanced work from them. I added that if they weren't able to secure the required number of letters from more senior people who knew them better, I would be willing to write one -- that this was advice based on what I thought would help their chances, not a flat refusal.

this was fine. the student had never had to put together this kind of application package before and had probably just looked up the instructor for the last three classes they got As in, having no idea what good rec letters look like or how readers judge them and their writers. steering them away from an unhelpful rec was much more like 'doing my job' than mechanically complying to produce a generic useless letter for a student I barely knew.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:20 PM on October 10 [11 favorites]



Yes, because from where I'm sitting, a lot of the endemic problems that plague academia stem in part because of how academia views tenure. So please, tell me why it's okay to use the too oft abused practice of nebulous duty requirements for tenured professors


Where Im sitting, as a former university staffer (non-tenured, non-faculty), I know full well the value of tenure has been diluted. But I also know it's still there, and it still comes with the reciprocal obligation not to work-to-rule. If you don't know this, well, there's a Thai restaurant in Cambridge MA where my colleages still hang out at lunch. They can enlighten you as well as I.

But okay, if you want to work to rule, two can play at that game.

Let's instruct your students that if they ask you for a recommendation letter, they should tell you what aspects of their performance as students and your experience with them they would like you to write about, but NOT to tell you where the letters are intended to be sent. You can decline. You can oblige them. They get to see the letter, and then the school takes a copy and forwards it, without tell you where to. Some students might still confide in you about where they want to go, but only if your reputation among the students allows them to confide in you.

It strikes me as yet another strike against the dignity of a full professor's calling, but hey, if you want to be transactional, you can be transactional. Sounds fair?
posted by ocschwar at 6:35 PM on October 10


"contact me if you have further questions" line is generally taken as "you better call because I can't put the shit I am going to say in writing".

Oh, shit, it is? I end every recommendation letter with a "feel free to contact me &c." (they never do). Have I been inadvertently sabotaging my students?
posted by jackbishop at 6:49 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]


I’m all for denying letters of recommendations to colonized settler states with defacto apartheid policies and an increasingly belligerent and undemocratic right wing government, but for some reason people keep writing these letters to American programs.
posted by maxsparber at 6:49 PM on October 10 [30 favorites]


"contact me if you have further questions" line is generally taken as "you better call because I can't put the shit I am going to say in writing".

That's seriously not cool. If you can't stand behind what you put down in writing, don't write the letter.
posted by ocschwar at 6:54 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


The professor's refusal seems like something that could significantly thwart the student's desires, but is likely to have a negligible impact on the Israeli government. If he wasn't obligated to write it, his refusal was still inappropriate. His censure is the best possible outcome: it brings attention to the underlying issue that was important to him, and he is the one sacrificing to uphold his values.
posted by snofoam at 6:54 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


I almost never wade into discussions like this, so my apologies if this thought is poorly formed--I'm certainly not a lawyer. My starting point here is that universities routinely set out anti-discrimination policies that both limit the expressive acts of their employees and that go beyond legal requirements for protecting students. Those policies routinely prohibit discrimination and harassment based on national origin (here's UM's). My thought is the university could reasonably conclude their policy also applies to discrimination against students based on their association with those of a protected class (as sometimes happens in technically-irrelevant employment law).

Maybe the university needs to be more explicit about that to cover this situation fairly, but given how other forms of association seem obviously protected (e.g. marriage to someone from whatever country), I'd at least find it plausible to read the policy this way as-is. I doubt we'd be talking about this at all if the professor had not said why he wouldn't write the letter--he had extremely wide latitude on this point. But if I understand correctly, the prof let everyone know that he was declining to support this student in particular because of their intended association with some group having a specific national origin, and my gut feeling is that the university is way overreaching in treating this as a case about how politics can intersect with teaching and whatnot when they've got a decent policy to work with that may forbid something really specific about this case.

Looking back to Kutsuwamishi's really useful list of hypotheticals, the only one that seems to trip on the same specifics is the one related to religion, and TBH that's the one that troubled me most--like, I get having qualms about what students would go do, but in the end I think some forms of association your students enjoy should be protected as a default. I can imagine the university choosing to create exceptions for particular countries, but I'd expect a boycott or whatnot to be focused on university resources first and maybe not on the life choices of individual students at all.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:16 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Like okay, if the program is a scam, tell the student it is and that's why you're not writing a letter. But not writing a letter because you don't agree with the politics of the country in which the program is located sounds kind of nuts to me. Maybe it's not but whoa.

Disagreeing with the politics of the country is a different situation than, there is a hostage population who have put out a solidarity plea.

I don’t know how i feel about the boycott generally or this letter of rec in particular, but the issue is specifically, the Palestinians. Australia is shamefully holding stateless refugees in camps but the people there have not called for boycott, so the ethical calculus of visiting Australia is different.

The letter refusal might be discriminatory towards the student (and also significantly more powerless than lobbying the university to institutionally boycott vs individual drop in the bucket boycott?) but the other side of the coin is the border agent in Ben Gurion Airport who’s going to want your gmail password to check you aren’t pro-BDS.

(Re: Lara Alqasem and Canary Mission)
posted by cricketcello at 7:41 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]



Like okay, if the program is a scam, tell the student it is and that's why you're not writing a letter. But not writing a letter because you don't agree with the politics of the country in which the program is located sounds kind of nuts to me. Maybe it's not but whoa.


Refusing the letter on these grounds is like making a stance against tipping by stiffing a waiter.

I hate tipping. I've advocated and voted for doing away with the tipped-wages exemption to the minimum wage because I'd rather have a system where waiters are allowed to be human on the clock, instead of this system where for an evening I can pretend I'm an aristocrat waited on with fake smiles when in truth I'm a paycheck away from the same rung on the ladder as mu waiter. But I won't make a stance on it by stiffing a waiter. My feelings should be advanced only by means where I pay the price.

If you feel so strongly about Israel that you're willing to make one of yourstudents pay for your opinion, well, you have too strong a sense of your own importance, or too little regard for the autonomy of the students you're responsible for bringing up into scholars. Probably both. THis professor, if he steps forward and says he's willing to give up the merit pay and sabbaticals as the price for his stance, then I can respect his decision. But if he's indignant, then he earns nothing but contempt for himself and his cause.
posted by ocschwar at 7:55 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


But not writing a letter because you don't agree with the politics of the country in which the program is located sounds kind of nuts to me. Maybe it's not but whoa.

What if the country in question was South Africa under Apartheid?

People may not like the comparison, but it’s one Black South Africans who lived under Apartheid (such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu) make, so one assumes they have a coherent opinion on it’s shape and form and characteristics. Jimmy Carter describes Israel’s actions and policies as Apartheid.

These are not fringe radicals.

“Would it make a difference if the country in question was South Africa in 1980? Would that make a difference to the discussion of academic responsibility, rights, and practices?”

My contention is it would have made a difference to the discussion then.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:32 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]


A teacher has to teach a class to a student they disagree with but shouldn't have to write an endorsement for any student.

I wouldn't write a letter of recommendation for someone if they wanted to work for say, Exxon... Seems like opposing the receiving organization is a valid reason to decline to write a recommendation..
posted by latkes at 8:41 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Every experienced academic knows the code phrases that can torpedo references and the "contact me if you have further questions" line is generally taken as "you better call because I can't put the shit I am going to say in writing".

Uh, I'm a tenured professor and I didn't know this one (if this is in fact a convention, I've literally never heard of it in basically 10 years of continuous searches that we seem to run). Is there like a list of these somewhere?
posted by advil at 8:42 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


Nobody owes you a letter so you can go party in another country for a semester of undergrad, and any professor reserves the right to simply not write you a letter, whether or not your daddy thinks that should be covered by your tuition. "I'm happy to write you a letter . . . oh wait but really not if you're planning to go there" is a perfectly valid ethical choice. I guess we're going to find out if it's a smart/legal one.

And ick a ton of the narrative surrounding this is being heavily fueled by the nouveau-fascist twitter. I thought these fuckers were really into taking controversial political stances on campus.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:42 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


That's seriously not cool. If you can't stand behind what you put down in writing, don't write the letter.

It is about what isn't in the letter not what is. People omit writing the damming details precisely because they are damming. Just like you warn your friend the guy she is dating is an asshole privately rather than publicly by postering her neighborhood.
posted by srboisvert at 8:42 PM on October 10


I wouldn't write a letter of recommendation for someone if they wanted to work for say, Exxon.

Don't be a geology prof :/
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:49 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


Disagreeing with the politics of the country is a different situation than, there is a hostage population who have put out a solidarity plea.

Fair enough, I now know more about BDS and why it specifically calls for an academic boycott. So publicity plan worked?

But - I don't know. This thread reminds me of why I as a student could not stomach academia despite loving the actual studying parts. So much distain for students.

I mean this whole discussion has examples of people saying they don't HAVE to write letters [on which their students depend, based on nothing to do with the students' merit as scholars] because [contract/beliefs/whatever.]

Out here in the non-academic world, lots of people have to write performance evaluations and all kind of things, and they are expected to evaluate workers on the merits of their job performance, not on whether the person is going to apply their annual bonus to supporting some terrible organization.

How is it right to hold back a student evaluation because you don't like where the student is going to apply it?
posted by warriorqueen at 8:53 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]


It's worth noting that there are quite a few academics who refuse to write letters of recommendation for students applying to Teach for America on ethical grounds. I am not aware of anyone who's been penalized for this refusal.
posted by karayel at 8:57 PM on October 10 [21 favorites]


-Refuses to write them unless the students have done an Education degree.

Nobody owes you a letter so you can go party in another country for a semester of undergrad

Eponysterical, but tell me, do you think all students who do study abroad intentions can be summed up as going to "party"? Or just the ones going to Israel? Or just this guy in particular?
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:03 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


She won’t write recommendation letters for Teach for America for students who *aren’t education majors,* karayal. That’s about the students’ qualifications, not the unique evilness of TFA.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:04 PM on October 10


I also refuse to write TFA letters.
posted by k8t at 9:16 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


Ok, let's say the professor is required to write the letter. He starts it off with something like "I cannot recommend this student to study at your university because your country has, in contravention of international law, engaged in genocidal practices. I do not think any students should attend your program, and it should be shut down. This student is a fine student, yaddy yaddy yadda, but they, like all other students should not be attending a school that endorses a neo-apartheid state." I think all of us would agree that that is not acceptable. But I think that some who feel that strongly about BDS and Israel/Palestine might write such a thing if they are force to write the letter.

It recommends the student, lists their skills, etc. But at the same time, I would think it would torpedo any help that the letter would otherwise create.

I talked to my wife about this (she's ABD in her grad program at the moment), and she said in her view, you tell the person that you will still write the letter, but that it would probably be good if the student found another recommender for this, as their letter would not be helpful. If they ask for it to be written anyway, you write it, but they should know that the letter may not help them in the slightest if you do follow through with the commitment.
posted by Hactar at 9:20 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Chenney-Lippold is an associate professor, which at Michigan is a tenured position (usually - the article states he's tenured). I don't think his political feelings regarding the country to which the student wanted to visit should've played a part in his decision making regarding whether to write the letter. Frankly, it's not a good way to make your political voice heard, and it's essentially forcing the student to become a pawn in that game.

That said, he's tenured, and I think there is a lot to recommend a system in which tenured faculty have wide leeway to do pretty much whatever they want, short of the criminal, with little fear of censure. This punishment should not have been levied, and certainly not by the administrative arm of the University. The student is free to seek recommendation letters from their other professors, and this is a semester abroad we're talking about here.
posted by axiom at 9:24 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Frankly, it's not a good way to make your political voice heard

He says in thread discussing the national controversy over the professor's political stance
posted by edeezy at 9:39 PM on October 10 [12 favorites]


I hardly think that was his intention from the get-go. The expected result was probably that the student would find someone else to provide a letter. Nobody would have been the wiser. The fact that it's become a public discussion is due to the student's actions, not Chenney-Lippold's.
posted by axiom at 9:47 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


That’s about the students’ qualifications, not the unique evilness of TFA.

I think it's pretty clear from that piece that she has major objections to TFA itself, even for education majors:
(For the rare education major who might ask for a recommendation, it is a different story, because at least I’ll know that the student has the benefit of professional educators and mentors who go above and beyond TFA’s crash course. Still, I’d listen carefully to their reasons for wanting to apply before writing the letter, and I’d make sure to explain my objections to TFA.)
In any case, she's not the only one who refuses to write letters for TFA. I assume scholars who take a similar stance have a range of reasons (and policies around whether or not they make exceptions), but my point is that it's not unknown for academics to set conditions on letter-writing. I've also heard of people refusing letters for some kinds of military/intelligence applications (like the now-defunct Human Terrain System), although I haven't seen any media coverage of such cases and it may just be hearsay.
posted by karayel at 9:51 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


I imagine we all agree that a professor who refused to write letters for black students and made it clear that that was the reason would deserve some penalty, regardless of the voluntary and expressive nature of a recommendation letter. Most of us would probably go so far as to say that even the content of the expression is potentially regulatable -- eg if a professor writes only nasty things about their black students, that too should probably be punishable. The same would probably go for a host of other protected categories, and inasmuch as we think it already happens (eg with female students), many of us already believe that persistent discriminatory behavior like that should be punished, and we shouldn't just throw up our hands and say, well, Dr. Z, we all know he's a racist, what are you going to do, a letter is just a voluntary expression. So for me, alas, this debate is not answerable by resort to procedural grounds or generic academic speech -- it fundamentally turns on whether refusing to write recommendations to visit Israel is more comparable to refusing to write recommendations for black students, or more comparable to refusing to write recommendations to the University of Phoenix (say). And like others here, I won't touch that myself for obvious reasons, but I don't think there's really any way to get around it if you really want to decide the just course of action here.
posted by chortly at 10:54 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Another example... Before writing letters for self-funded MA programs, I have a serious talk with my undergrad students about debt and ROI.
posted by k8t at 11:54 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


nuke the rec letters. academia is past the point where they can be a useful and ethical system, both scale and tolerance for soft and hard discrimination. Transcripts and grades harbour plenty discrimination as it is, and we have a fetish for believing our "qualifications" are about merit instead of gate keeping. End this subjective near compulsory low utility filter.

If you require it of a student, and don't require a professor to do it, that is abuse of power waiting to happen. That this situation also triggers bigger issues doesn't mean that the rec system isn't bad when it doesn't involve hot buttons.

I don't think this profs position is " i don't recomend jews" its " i recommended this kid for anywhere but israel". does that distinction matter, i think so. does that exhonerate him from any censure, .... i'm not sure.

If the profs reason was he was a christian, i'd be even more opposed to his actions, though , its true he'd be on stronger legal grounds, Christian doctors in the US can and do refuse to give you medical care for relgious reasons. xtian boses can refuse to comply with laws offering health insurance, they can refuse to serve you in their businesses. But this prof isn't sayyng his trouble is with the kid, nor is his religous belief.

Also if the prof is gonna BDS israel, well, israel will fight back. That's on him. his lawyer can fight the university and see what the labor-law stand is.


Ugh. Its a case that pits academia against the sensibilities of parents, students and the non-academic public, the left against israel, employers against employees. Its no wonder its a great argument starter and probably will/is going to be picked up as a cudgel in other political fights.

I agree the prof should have handled it differently, and should fight the discipline, i think the department probably has the right to discipline him and will do so to save face. Ugh.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 1:02 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]


I feel like a lot of comments are sort of...fundamentally misunderstanding how political action works? If your takeaway is "wow, this completely violates the norms of expected professional interaction"...correct! That is the point. The goal of a movement like BDS is to inconvenience people and, often, prompt confrontation in pursuit of addressing a human rights problem. There's certainly no requirement to agree that this is a valid cause, but framing this situation in terms of academic etiquette is really missing what's actually going on here. Personally (and incidentally but also non-incidentally as someone who is Jewish) I respect and appreciate what the professor has done here.
posted by dusty potato at 6:46 AM on October 11 [10 favorites]


That is the point. The goal of a movement like BDS is to inconvenience people and, often, prompt confrontation in pursuit of addressing a human rights problem.

I guess I just find it difficult that within what is touted as a meritocracy, tenured professors expect to be able to use their students' goals as leverage in this cause while not incurring any penalties themselves. So given that this professor did, I guess I see that as a fair outcome.

I don't consider this the same as a strike; while a strike certainly also impacts students, patients, etc., it is not without cost to the person taking the principled stand themselves. But throwing students' goals on the fire without any personal cost seems wrong -- in this case without even the courtesy of a conversation. Just a cheery email to the (female) student: Sorry, I didn't read your initial email, can't do this for you.

I was discussing this with my husband, who also eventually dropped out of a masters' program, in the context of how much we are setting our kids up for failure if we push the university path.

I guess I would wish that at the very least professors like k8t and this professor would publish their letters of reference policy where students can see them before investing in their courses and in trying to develop professional relationships with them. If a student knows they want to do Teach for America, then they should also know not to waste their time on making themselves visible to professors who aren't going to be willing to help them -- not because the student didn't perform well in the class or demonstrate mastery or interest in the field but because the professor is taking a stand.

I find it really cavalier how people are like "the student should just ask someone else!" I found it really hard to approach professors even at my small university, and also because it was small, there was a smaller pool of professors in each department - something I wish I had understood the risks of better when I chose it, stupid me, based on the quality of teaching.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:05 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


do you think all students who do study abroad intentions can be summed up as going to "party"?

In undergrad? With no real evidence, and no way to get any, based purely on the people I knew who did it, maybe 75%? I mean sure, most of them are also learning conversational Italian or what-have-you.

Dunno, I've been working full time since I was 16 and put myself through college, so maybe that's just the class anxiety talking.

But I can't imagine this aspect of the conversation is going to be any more productive than MeFi's discussion about taking a "gap year," and it's sorta orthogonal to the point, which is that your professor doesn't owe you a letter of recommendation.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:42 AM on October 11


The peanut gallery

Hey folks, since this is a thread about antisemitism it doesn't feel 1000% derail-y to point out that this expression is racist.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:56 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]


How is it right to hold back a student evaluation because you don't like where the student is going to apply it?

It isn't, and you can't do that. People who are late with grades for any reason other than generosity - e.g. the student never showed up for the final, failed to file for an incomplete, but you hold out hope that maybe they had an emergency and there's some way around giving them an F, so you'll wait until they get in touch or some adminstrator yells at you -- are the worst. everybody hates them, they're usually grad students falling apart for their own reasons but there is no good excuse, I'm sure someone, somewhere, sometime, has withheld a grade just to ruin a student's life but it is not a thing that anybody argues for the right to do.

A recommendation is not an evaluation. When you teach a course, you set the standards for evaluating performance and then you have to stick to them. If you give someone an F, you have a sort-of-objective metric right there in your syllabus to justify it. and you have to be prepared to justify it if someone complains.

a recommendation, on the other hand, is partly subjective. openly and by design. A program of whatever kind requires rec letters is asking, usually explicitly, for your opinion. Besides an open-ended letter, they will ask things like: We require X qualities in successful applicants. In your observation, does this student possess those qualities? Please give examples. Or: Compared to other students you've taught, would you say the applicant is in the top 10 percent, top 50 percent, bottom 50 percent, best ever, worst you ever had?

you can't lie about this shit and maintain integrity. professors do; they lie in writing to avoid unpleasantness and they shouldn't. It makes genuine recommendations worthless and genuinely good students invisible. Any professor who teaches for a decade will have encountered a number of students they would not and will not recommend for anything. depending on the reason why, there are ways to explain this to them that are actually helpful in the long term and encouraging in the short term. sometimes there aren't.

but again, an evaluation may form part of a recommendation, but they are not equivalent. It is unethical to selectively promote or fail to promote students based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, national origin, disability, or any other identity category unrelated to their performance, potential, and (depending on what the rec is for) character. but a dishonest recommendation is worthless to the student who gets it and actively harmful to all the other students they're competing against.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:10 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]


I imagine we all agree that a professor who refused to write letters for black students and made it clear that that was the reason would deserve some penalty

This analogy is wrong.*

First: Race (and religion) is a legally protected class. Students who want to study in Israel are not a legally protected class. If the professor had refused to write letters, on principle, for Jewish students, that would be a clear violation of law and one presumes school policy. That's not what happened.

Ignoring the law, and only on ethical grounds: Again, he is not refusing to write letters for students of a certain identity. He is refusing to write a letter for any student if they are using it toward entry into a program he disapproves of. It's the program he is boycotting, not the student he has a problem with. That is totally explicit in his communication with the student.

I don't know this guy's job description, but I assume writing letters of recommendation is not his core job function, teaching is. I can completely understand a school disciplining a professor who refused to teach someone who, say, wanted to use her degree to go work in Israel. But that's not what happened either. Honestly, if I had an instructor who was say, an evangelical, I would not ask them to write me a personal endorsement for say, a job at a radical queer rights organization. I might think they are a stupid, homophobic dick, but I don't see how they'd be obligated to individually aid me in working somewhere they disaprove of. Surely folks here who think this teacher was wrong can think of some examples of places they would not want to help a student study or work.

Would you write a letter of recommend for a student who wanted to work for an overtly racist organization? Surely this professor has a right to his individual moral principles.

*(And in general, most people don't appreciate having the discrimination they experienced compared to supposed discrimination toward other groups.)
posted by latkes at 10:20 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]


Any professor who teaches for a decade will have encountered a number of students they would not and will not recommend for anything. depending on the reason why, there are ways to explain this to them that are actually helpful in the long term and encouraging in the short term. sometimes there aren't.

I'm not disputing that that's an appropriate reason to not recommend someone. That's based on the merits of the student.

I'm saying that professors who want to send a message to a receiving institution, when the student wants to go there and the student is a good student that would normally be recommended, are simply using the student as a card in their deck. I personally think this is pretty lousy and just gets down to that students are commodities and little tuition-payers but not perceived as people, their work is not respected, and professors play politics with them. This thread has been really eye opening at just how bad it is these days.

BTW, this professor did provide two letters of recommendation for study abroad in Israel - a few months earlier, when he himself did not have tenure. "Besides outlining disciplinary action, Cole's letter chided Cheney-Lippold for writing two letters previously for students who wanted to study in Israel because he didn't have tenure."
posted by warriorqueen at 10:25 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]


First: Race (and religion) is a legally protected class. Students who want to study in Israel are not a legally protected class. If the professor had refused to write letters, on principle, for Jewish students, that would be a clear violation of law and one presumes school policy. That's not what happened.

Explain to me how this will not disproportionately affect Jewish students.
posted by maxsparber at 10:44 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


That's a good point.
posted by latkes at 11:08 AM on October 11


Disproportionate effect is not inherently connected to discrimination, though obviously it should be something that prompts further consideration. (To be clear, I am speaking ethically and politically, not legally - - I have no particular legal knowledge.)

If I refuse to recommend interns for jobs at the Daughters of the Confederacy, that decision may disproportionately affect women but to say it's discriminatory against women would be...complex, at the very least.
posted by dusty potato at 11:46 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]


Tel Aviv University seems an odd comparison to the Daughters of the Confederacy. The student and the institution are being punished for being connected with an entire nation, so a better parallel would be if you refused to recommend somebody to an otherwise value neutral program in Canada because of their atrocious treatment of First Nations people.
posted by maxsparber at 11:59 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I mean, that seems like a morally defensible position to me. A difference though in this case is there is an active boycott and divestment campaign aimed at the country of Israel - not at Canada.

The way boycotts work is that people target one product/company/industry/nation to achieve a specific outcome. It strikes me as silly to say we should never boycott anything since other things are also bad. The boycott aspect of the Anti-Apartheid movement was, in conjunction with specific campaigns originating in South African, an effective strategy for ending apartheid.

At that time, one could have said we shouldn't boycott South Africa because the US is also racist. However, having a large-scale targeted campaign against the horrors of that specific country was a strategy that ultimately worked against those racist policies.

I do think most people here understand that Israel is a complex case. So I appreciate hearing other perspectives as well.
posted by latkes at 12:26 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


If First Nations groups called for a cultural and educational boycott of Canada, as Palestinian groups widely have for Israel, I certainly hope people would be attentive and responsive to that. I think it's important to be clear that this is not (necessarily) someone's isolated animus towards Israel, but part of a larger action called by Palestinian people suffering under Israeli occupation.

By way of comparison, I make some purchases (cheap textiles, chocolate!) that are ethically problematic and that if I were a closer-to-good person I would not buy; however, a current line in the sand for me would be giving money to Marriott. Not because I think Marriott is worse than Nike or because I personally hate them, but because a major strike has been called.
posted by dusty potato at 12:28 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


By way of comparison, I make some purchases (cheap textiles, chocolate!) that are ethically problematic and that if I were a closer-to-good person I would not buy; however, a current line in the sand for me would be giving money to Marriott.
I don't think the issue here is what your personal lines in the sand are. It's whether you're entitled to impose your personal lines in the sand on people over whom you have power.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:33 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


Is there a specific population that would like to study in Canada, or wished to study in South Africa, that was also a population that has suffered hundreds of years of systemic prejudice, hatred, pogroms, and massacres?
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:36 PM on October 11


To be clear, if we are talking about BDS, it has called for a boycott of institutions that support military control of the occupied territories, not for a general boycott of all cultural and educational products of Israel -- they have made a case that Tel Aviv University does this, the extent to which is open for debate.

There have been other calls for broader boycotts of Israel, such as the Arab League boycott of Israel, but it is doubtful that this professor was also blacklisting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for including a horse named Samson, as the Arab League did.
posted by maxsparber at 12:36 PM on October 11


I don't think the issue here is what your personal lines in the sand are. It's whether you're entitled to impose your personal lines in the sand on people over whom you have power.

Hmm-- I'll have to just agree to deeply disagree on this. To my mind there is vast room for debate on what issues merit what action, but I'm not aware of any mainstream system of ethics/morals that doesn't call on people to use their power in service of what's right when an injustice achieves some level of urgency.
posted by dusty potato at 12:44 PM on October 11


This all seems like a recipe for "recommendation letters" that say "I am required by University Policy to write this letter recommending Susy Smith."
posted by Megafly at 1:45 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


Every experienced academic knows the code phrases that can torpedo references and the "contact me if you have further questions" line is generally taken as "you better call because I can't put the shit I am going to say in writing".

Uh, I'm a tenured professor and I didn't know this one (if this is in fact a convention, I've literally never heard of it in basically 10 years of continuous searches that we seem to run). Is there like a list of these somewhere?


ok, I realize this is a little bit tangential to this thread, but I wanted to quickly follow up. I have to write a couple of letters soon that I want to be very strong (not to mention the ones I did over the last couple weeks already), so this comment made me paranoid enough to consult my facebook academic friends. So far this is unanimously (across a bunch of fields, and a good range of seniority) not a convention, and also an extremely common boilerplate in all of our letters.
posted by advil at 2:28 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


So far this is unanimously (across a bunch of fields, and a good range of seniority) not a convention, and also an extremely common boilerplate in all of our letters.

That's a relief. I think my initial, "oh shit, is this a thing?" reply was read by many as humorous, but I was anxiously awaiting someone saying, "er, no, that's not a thing." in reply.
posted by jackbishop at 2:53 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


It's whether you're entitled to impose your personal lines in the sand on people over whom you have power.

Theres like 3 or 4 different camps on this general question but I think once people get to that point of philosophy, the truth as it relates to this instance is, do you see yourself as as a progressive activist or not. Academic intellectuals inhabit a particular political class and so they answer this question in a particular way. What the responsibilities of an intellectual should be is the relevant question, but if you really look at the power dynamics within academia structurally and discursively, then you can't answer it without being honest about ideological biases and having a space conducive to exploring that.
posted by polymodus at 2:54 PM on October 11


The Canadian example is funny because my response is to up the ante, we ought to do something about institutions complicit in oppression of the first peoples. Just cause it's been normalized into culture in deep ways doesn't make it a counterexample to the violence and oppression that the BDS movement seeks to raise awareness about. Canada isn't being punished for its legacy only because it's a global power protected by a deterring apparatus, not because it's a shining example at all. Our internalized superiority insulates us from this perspective.
posted by polymodus at 3:15 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


That's a relief. I think my initial, "oh shit, is this a thing?" reply was read by many as humorous, but I was anxiously awaiting someone saying, "er, no, that's not a thing." in reply.

Oh, I absolutely have used this in strong letters. I think context is everything. In a faint praise sort of letter, I would read it as "I probably have some negative commentary I would prefer not to put in writing with my name attached." In a glowing letter with detailed description of the student's strengths, I would interpret it more like "Don't want to keep you here for another 5 pages, but I am happy to advocate for this student or provide whatever specific info you need to approve them for Program X."
posted by ktkt at 10:40 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Some of the comments above seem to implicitly assume that the students interested in studying in Israel are primarily, or at least, disproportionately Jewish. This assumption is of questionable accuracy.

I spent two years in Israel as a post-doc. During that time I met many students studying abroad there, and they were from countries all over the world, including US, UK, Germany, Nigeria, India, Poland, Italy, Sebia, Turkey, Spain, and Japan. Hardly any of those students were Jewish.

Israel is a fascinating place historically, culturally, religiously, and geographically. It also has very good universities and tech companies. So lots of people who are not Jewish have reasons for wanting to go there. For example, it's a top destination for archaeologists and historians.

On a different note, while I find the policies of the Israel government toward Palestinians to be horrifying, and I support international efforts to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its ways, I think that boycotting Israeli universities is deeply misguided. The mission of the academy, since the dawn of times, has been creation and dissemination of knowledge, in an intellectually honest and thorough way. Refusing to engage with researchers because of their country of residence (as academics boycotting Israeli universities aim to do) is completely at odds with that mission.
posted by epimorph at 10:44 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


The mission of the academy, since the dawn of times, has been creation and dissemination of knowledge, in an intellectually honest and thorough way.

Counterpoint: Liberty University.

While I actually agree that boycotting Israeli universities is deeply misguided, this statement is a profoundly ahistorical and whitewashed version of what "the academy" has actually done "since the dawn of times," whatever its ostensible mission may have been.

An arm of "the academy" was sterilizing homeless women and castrating homosexual men less than a century ago. Geographical Determinism, Physiognomy, Social Darwinism, and the Chicago School of Economics, anyone?
posted by aspersioncast at 8:08 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


Well I guess you have to ask why does BDS include these universities, and maybe they have a rationale for doing so. But that's something you have to think to ask and look into. Universities are sites and sources of structural oppression so they're not magically exempt. Activist movements have to decide what degree is needed in each case. The other question is, there could even be conscientious (?) scholars and activists at Israeli universities in this case that would be okay with being boycotted. You'd have to ask that question as well.
posted by polymodus at 10:24 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


this statement is a profoundly ahistorical and whitewashed version of what "the academy" has actually done

If the a university or an academic fails in upholding the aforementioned mission, then they should certainly be called to task for it. But that's no justification for any future violations or proof that most academics are not committed to this mission.

polymodus: Universities should not be magically exempt from anything. But boycotting a bunch of universities only because of where they are located geographically would be hypocritical from anyone interested in open exchanges of ideas.

Speaking from personal experience, Israeli universities (with one or two exceptions, not including Tel Aviv) are generally populated by progressives, who are among the most outspoken critics of the government's policies toward the Palestinians. They have been historically committed to devoting extra resources to educating Arabs and other under-served populations in Israel. In fact the country's present government has engaged in a campaign to defund the universities for those reasons. The BDS-affiliated folks who are trying to undermine Israeli universities are really playing into the government's hands on this issue.
posted by epimorph at 10:44 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]




So because one part of a university is engaged in an activity you disapprove of, that automatically disqualifies any ideas of historians, mathematicians, psychologists, etc., working there from consideration in the endeavor of expanding human knowledge. Right? Because that is what BDS is encouraging--not publishing work performed by Israeli academics, not participating in conferences with them, etc.

My point is simply that if you're engaged in an honest pursuit of knowledge (as academics are supposed to be), you cannot discard ideas based on where they originated.
posted by epimorph at 11:27 PM on October 12


So because one part of a university is engaged in an activity you disapprove of, that automatically disqualifies any ideas of historians, mathematicians, psychologists, etc., working there from consideration in the endeavor of expanding human knowledge. Right? Because that is what BDS is encouraging--not publishing work performed by Israeli academics, not participating in conferences with them, etc.

It's arguing in bad faith to state that someone is in opposition without acknowledging what the opposition is about. The BDS movement isn't just saying "we're opposed to this university", but that they are opposed to the university because it is engaged in actively supporting oppression and apartheid. And the point of applying the position to the university as a whole is to get all those other academics to look at what's being done in their name, and to get them to push to stop it.

My point is simply that if you're engaged in an honest pursuit of knowledge (as academics are supposed to be), you cannot discard ideas based on where they originated.

The counterpoint is that if you believe in human rights, you don't turn a blind eye to the enabling of their abuse. The academy has a long, ignoble history of being willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of knowledge, which is why it needs to be held accountable when it does.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:20 AM on October 13 [3 favorites]


The counterpoint is that if you believe in human rights, you don't turn a blind eye to the enabling of their abuse.

And yet, nobody suggests applying BDS to any other country. If BDS were really about promoting human rights you'd think that there'd be many targets and many groups promoting it. That's not what we see, though: there's only one target and suggestions that BDS activists might be interested in human rights abuses in other countries are dismissed as ‘whattaboutery’. Turning a blind eye to the enabling of abuse is literally a prerequisite for supporting BDS.

And it's not even something external to the BDS movement. There is a consistent pattern of BDS supporters being blind to gross antisemitism among their fellow activists. One of the people weighing in on this very issue is David Palumbo-Liu, whose support for BDS led him to endorse Alison Weir's organisation If Americans Knew as an alternative to “mainstream media”. Alison Weir is a notorious promoter of the blood libel and other antisemitic theories who had appeared many times in White Nationist radio shows and publications. Palumbo-Liu's endorsement of her came a year after she had been condemned by other BDS supporters like Jewish Voice for Peace, Mondoweiss, and Electronic Intifada. This was dismayingly controversial in BDS circles; I can't believe Palumbo-Liu hadn't heard of it. Not that that would excuse him, of course.

Weir is just one of many anti-Israel activists ultimately denounced for gross antisemitism. It's easy to see why antisemites are drawn to BDS activism: there's only a small step from the allegation that their (mostly Jewish) opponents are working on behalf of Israel to the suggestion that it's a malign Jewish conspiracy. And it always offers the opportunity to slip other classic antisemitic canards into public debate. What's harder to see is why ostensibly-liberal people keep acting as though this is a surprise.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:34 PM on October 13


And yet, nobody suggests applying BDS to any other country.

You do realize that the original BDS movement, the one the current one is modeled after, was targeted at South Africa, right?
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:32 PM on October 13 [5 favorites]


The counterpoint is that if you believe in human rights, you don't turn a blind eye to the enabling of their abuse.

I wasn't suggesting turning a blind eye to abuse. You can call out abuse and try to fight it. But ignoring people's ideas and refusing to communicate with them (as BDS encourages academics to do) is never the answer. That just impoverishes the entire civilization.
posted by epimorph at 8:33 PM on October 13


You do realize that the original BDS movement, the one the current one is modeled after, was targeted at South Africa, right?

I know you think that's a rebuttal, but I can't see how. The modern BDS movement apparently dates to the notoriously-antisemitic Durban I Conference of 2001. Since that time, has BDS actually been applied to any other country? No. Is there any prospect of this happening? No. Is there even a substantial lobby in favour of its extension? No. As I said: “nobody suggests applying BDS to any other country.” Other tactics are applied or dropped against particular targets as appropriate, but the only measure reserved for Israel is the one that says all Israelis are guilty, individually and collectively; that letting a single artist or academic escape would make the whole thing meaningless. This isn't a liberal argument: it's the “perfidious Jews” translated into secular terms.

The usual thing at this point is to say “while I don't think most supporters of BDS are antisemitic …”, but I don't do that any more. I think we can agree that people raised in a patriarchal society are likely to have internalised misogyny; that people raised in a racist society are likely to be at least subconsciously racist: well, then. BDS is a discriminatory measure aimed at Jews and the Jewish State and it's not my job to make its proponents feel better.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:25 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]


That's not what we see, though: there's only one target and suggestions that BDS activists might be interested in human rights abuses in other countries are dismissed as ‘whattaboutery’.

I know I'm wading into some shit here, but it's OK for a movement to be about one thing, or fewer things than any of us think they should.
posted by rhizome at 10:45 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]


"I'd also like to add, for anybody saying that letter writing should be compulsory, you still can't make them write a good letter. When a student asks me for a letter, if I don't think they are well-qualified or whatever then I will say something like "Just so you know, I will be honest about both your strengths and weaknesses, specifically X and Y", and give them the option to change their mind. Nothing is making me do that except empathy and a belief in fairness. And nothing is making any compulsory letter-writer do that either; in lieu of withholding the letter they could simply write a bad one. This would be even worse for the student, and it's basically a guaranteed outcome at least some of the time if you make letter writing compulsory."
This is something that I have always been very careful to stress to students. A reputable program will demand that prospective students waive any right they might have to read letters as part of the application process. For a letter to mean anything we have to feel free to say anything, thus students really need to be careful to ask whether we would be willing to write a positive letter, not just any letter.

However, I think that this feature of academic letters of recommendation exposes the conceit and intellectual cowardice at the heart of this refusal. Cheney-Lippold wasn't content to express their political opinions about Jews and whether students should study at universities in Israel in a letter, knowing he wouldn't actually succeed in harming his student that way. Indeed, even if he neglected to address the merit of the student at all, this would just give the selection committee an opportunity to address the impact of his bigotry by considering only the other letters or giving the student an opportunity to replace his. The committee would then be able to consider student with the knowledge that antisemitism has prevented them from being fully assessed by their home institution in the way that their achievement should merit and then make appropriate allowances.
"First: Race (and religion) is a legally protected class. Students who want to study in Israel are not a legally protected class. If the professor had refused to write letters, on principle, for Jewish students, that would be a clear violation of law and one presumes school policy. That's not what happened."
Right, so long as its only some Jews and not all Jews who are discriminated against, targeting the academic ambitions of Jews is all totally fine?
posted by Blasdelb at 6:28 AM on October 15 [2 favorites]


No. Thankfully BDS is not targeting the academic ambitions of Jews.
posted by edeezy at 5:45 PM on October 15 [4 favorites]


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