Community Briefing: Response to Events at the University of Michigan

October 10, 2018 – Over the past few weeks, events have unfolded at the University of Michigan that are deeply troubling. First, a professor reversed his decision to provide a letter of recommendation to a student wishing to study abroad when he learned that the student intended to study in Tel Aviv. Second, a guest lecturer in the Stamps School of Art and Design gave a presentation that included a grotesque image equating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Adolf Hitler. Earlier this week, we learned of a second instructor denying a letter of recommendation to a student who intended to study in Israel.

We are disturbed by these incidents on campus that have understandably drawn the attention and concern of many within our community – locally and beyond. We feel your frustration and we share your concerns. We know that many people are anxious to see a response from the University. To that end, we are in close contact with the University’s leadership, and have made a number of strong recommendations in private conversation. We are pleased that some of these recommendations have been enacted very recently, including the University taking action to discipline the professor who denied the first student a letter of recommendation.

Read more in this article from The Detroit News.

This latest news is an important step in the right direction, but more work remains. The proposed policies and programs listed below are specific actions that we are seeking from the University to address recent incidents and to create meaningful change going forward.

Federation, JCRC/AJC and ADL are working together in partnership with Hillel at the University of Michigan to ensure a safe and supportive campus environment for Jewish students. This remains our top priority. No student should feel targeted or isolated because of their support for Israel.

Proposed Policies and Programs for University of Michigan

The University’s commitment to inclusive excellence must have means for addressing campus climate. This effort needs to specifically include issues affecting Jewish students and issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism. Discrimination, bias and harassment have no place at a university. All federal and state anti-discrimination laws apply and must be implemented through an institutional accountability framework for addressing allegations and supporting victims as well as providing due process for the accused.

It is in that vein that we call upon the University to do the following:

  1. Establish a University policy on letters of recommendation: In light of the multiple incidents in which students have been denied letters of recommendation, we call upon the University to set up guidelines for such letters so that students wishing to go abroad for academic purposes are not penalized because of their professors’ political viewpoints. News of the University’s discipline of the professor who abused his authority is encouraging. It is critical to make sure policies are in place to prevent this from happening again — ensuring students are always supported in their academic pursuits.
  2. Implement training that addresses anti-Semitism: Administrators, faculty and staff should receive regular (at least annual) training on campus climate issues and methods for addressing issues of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism, on campus and in the classroom. It is critical for administrators, faculty and staff to have the ability to identify problems and address them in the context of both the first amendment/free speech protections as well as disciplinary codes for disruption that set boundaries on where speech and behavior cross the line. This type of training should be included in efforts by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. There should be appropriate resources and designated professionals who will resolve these issues.
  3. Apply the University’s non-discrimination policy equally: The State Department’s Working Definition of anti-Semitism can provide useful guidance on the changing nature of anti-Semitism. Most incidents of anti-Semitism on campus are unrelated to anti-Israel activity. But there are instances in which anti-Israel activity – including anti-Semitic stereotypes and anti-Israel or anti-Zionism expressions coded as political discourse – cross the line to targeted, intentional, unlawful, discriminatory intimidation and harassment of Jewish students. The University must develop a system for handling anti-Semitic incidents with a transparent process that students can follow when these situations arise. Tolerating anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, where one would otherwise condemn such hatred is allowing a destructive double standard to fester.