A Test for the University of Michigan

  • by:
    • Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
  • October 4, 2018

Academic freedom is a cherished value in universities. It is predicated on the idea that professors can teach and students can learn without other forces interfering in the process, limiting the pursuit of ideas. And yet, a recent incident at Ann Arbor suggests that is not always the case – that professors actually can shut down conversation and constrain academic freedom based purely on their politics.

By this point, the facts are fairly well known. A student at University of Michigan (UM) asked her professor for a letter of recommendation to study abroad at a program in Israel. The UM professor agreed to do so, theoretically because the student demonstrated academic merit and showed some measure of intellectual promise in his course. However, the professor then rescinded the offer when he learned where the program would take place: Israel.

As he withdrew his offer, the professor texted the student that he would not support her desire to study in Israel because “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott” of Israel. He offered to write her a letter to study in any other country, just not Israel.

Right off the bat, the professor’s claim was wrong – many university departments are not making such pledges. But that is not even the real issue. Simply put, students should not be denied an opportunity to participate in an accredited overseas program because of a professor’s political views.

For example, I would wonder whether the professor writes recommendations for students who want to study in China despite the fact that Beijing has imprisoned more than 1 million Uighur Muslims to “re-education camps” for political indoctrination. Or Turkey, where the Erdogan regime has jailed journalists at a record-breaking rate. Or Russia, even though the leadership in Moscow poisons its political opponents in foreign capitalspermits brutality against its LGBTQ citizens and interferes with foreign elections.

No, it appears that only Israel earns his opprobrium.

In an age of “truthiness” when our elected leaders cannot seem to stick to the facts, maybe we should not be surprised when professors resort to the same tactics. I would like to think that tenured faculty might subscribe to a tradition of honest inquiry. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case with this individual.

Although it is true that a small number of U.S. academic associations have voted to support the so-called BDS movement that aggressively attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and deny Jews the right of self-determination,this boycott has been roundly condemned by responsible leadership at many major universities and related institutions. It has been called out as contrary to the cherished principle of the free exchange of ideas by reputable organizations like the American Association of University Professors, the American Association of Universities, let alone scores of other academic institutions and associations.  And not a single major university has divested its endowment despite the hysteria of some marginal parties.

None are taking part because they know that such boycotts are contrary to the very understanding of what academic freedom means. It is the open exchange of ideas that moves democratic societies forward, allowing people to test hypotheses and hear from varied voices on controversial topics. Frankly, an American student studying in Israel, who can meet ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, likely will gain deeper insights about the prospects for peace than a professor shuttered in the ivory tower.

When this story broke, the UM Administration issued a statement condemning the professor’s decision, and then followed with a stronger one. This was a good start, but more needs to be done. Allowing for the precedent of capriciously targeting programs in the Jewish state will have a chilling effect. At a time when anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in our country and specifically on college campuses, this latest incident adds fuel to the fire. It singles out the Jewish state and holds it to a double standard. I personally have heard from Jewish students concerned about a potential precedent, shutting them out of study in the Jewish state.

As an organization that has been critical of particular policies of elected Israeli governments, we would not deny the right of a professor to express strongly held views. But we absolutely condemn when one would prevent his students from pursing honest intellectual inquiry. That is not an exercise in freedom of speech. It is a denial of a person’s freedom to study. And it is inexcusable.

This incident highlights the need for academic institutions to take proactive measures to ensure the honest pursuit of ideas. It is time for UM to introduce a policy that prevents professors from stopping their students from studying at approved academic programs – even in countries whose governments they abhor. If an accredited university has an approved program, any student should be offered a right to study at the university – and professors should not be allowed to hinder the learning experience.

While the University of Michigan should implement this policy, this debacle should serve as a lesson for all institutions of higher learning. Campuses across the country should seize the opportunity and proactively institute such policies. It is long overdue for universities to send a clear message: they will prioritize the needs of their students and the pursuit of ideas ahead of the petty politics of their professors.

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