Letter: Important questions around issues of personal beliefs, our responsibilities as educators, and anti-Semitism

To All Members of the Campus Community:

Recent events on our campus have raised important questions around issues of personal beliefs, our responsibilities as educators, and anti-Semitism. Provost Philbert and I, along with the Board of Regents and several academic leaders, have been engaged in discussions about these issues with members of the university and broader communities in recent weeks. The incidents have caused hurt and made some members of our community feel that their religious identity and academic aspirations are not valued.

We want everyone in our Jewish community and beyond to know that we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment where everyone is given a chance to succeed and pursue the academic opportunities they have earned. First and foremost, this applies to our students. These are core values of our university, and even in moments of turmoil and strong disagreement, they guide our work and give us a path forward.

Denial of Letters of Recommendation

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

Withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views does not meet our university’s expectations for supporting the academic aspirations of our students. Conduct that violates this expectation and harms students will not be tolerated and will be addressed with serious consequences. Such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission.

The denials are being addressed with those involved through our existing policies, but as an institution we do not share protected personnel information. We have apologized to the students themselves and worked to ensure that they have everything they need to complete their applications.

As we have stated, U-M strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and no school, college, department or unit at our university endorses such a boycott. Our view is that educators at a public university have an obligation to support students’ academic growth, and we expect anyone with instructional responsibilities to honor this fundamental university value. Our students deserve to be afforded all of the opportunities they have earned through their academic merit.

We will work to make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support. To do this, the provost has created a panel of distinguished faculty members to examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and faculty members’ responsibilities to students.

The primary objectives of the panel are:

  • To examine relevant university policy, including but not limited to statements in the Standard Practice Guide and the Faculty Handbook;
  • To gather and review relevant policy statements of peer institutions;
  • To gather input from stakeholders across the university; and
  • To recommend how to clarify current policy or create new policy that clearly articulates institutional principles and expectations at the intersection of faculty members’ responsibilities to students and their personal views.

The panel will be chaired by James Duderstadt, president emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering.

We will share the results of the panel’s work when it is completed.

Penny Stamps Speaker Series

On Oct. 4, a presentation delivered as part of a speaker series sponsored by our Stamps School of Art & Design deeply offended some members of our community. Emory Douglas was invited to speak about the evolution of his art; his work with the Black Panther Party, where he began his design career; and black voting rights.

Douglas, who is not a U-M faculty member, covered a wide array of subject matter within the overarching context of his work, which looks at the oppression of people that he asserts is perpetuated by governmental powers. Details about the program are here.

For our university to fulfill its role as a place for discovery, growth and increased understanding of the complex world we serve, speakers must be free to express their ideas even when they might be offensive. And all members of our community must be free to express their own ideas in response.

It also is important to note that the ideas discussed in our teaching venues do not necessarily reflect the institutional values or position of the University of Michigan or its regents.

The image that offended a number of our students was on a single slide among nearly 200 other slides that were presented over the course of an hour (full video available here). It juxtaposed photos of Israel’s prime minister and Hitler. Israel was not singled out here as imagery critical of many other political leaders was also a part of the talk. This was the point of the talk itself – that imagery can be a powerful component of movements aimed at social justice.

Hitler and the genocide that he led, however, represent a horrific level of evil with few if any parallels in human history. We understand how these images are offensive, particularly in this case to Jewish students. We are sorry students were hurt by this experience.

Our ongoing commitment to our students, the communities we serve, and to each other is to listen, think, and act with respect, recognizing that each of us has something to contribute and that we all have much to learn.

We thank you for your attention and your commitment to our academic community.


Mark S. Schlissel

Martin A. Philbert
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs