Aca­demics aren’t obliged to write rec­om­men­da­tion let­ters, ar­gues David Palumbo-Liu

Aca­demics are well within their rights not to write let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion, says David Palumbo-Liu

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon pro­fes­sor and pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.

Are aca­demics obliged to write let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion for stu­dents even if they ab­hor what the stu­dent in ques­tion is ap­ply­ing to do?

That ques­tion is raised by the re­cent case of John Cheney-Lip­pold, a Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan aca­demic who re­fused to sup­port a stu­dent’s ap­pli­ca­tion to a study abroad pro­gramme in Is­rael be­cause of his ob­jec­tions to the coun­try’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans.

Some are ac­cus­ing Cheney-Lip­pold, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of Amer­i­can cul­ture, of “politi­cis­ing” the process, re­strict­ing the stu­dent’s aca­demic free­dom and sin­gling out one coun­try for a per­sonal, idio­syn­cratic boy­cott.

I dis­agree. First, there is no rule in the US that says an aca­demic must write let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion. Pe­riod. Do­ing so is a con­ven­tion, and part of a cour­tesy we ex­tend to the stu­dent and to the school or pro­gramme to which they are ap­ply­ing.

But, for the sake of ar­gu­ment, let’s imag­ine there were such a rule (ex­cept, per­haps, when the stu­dent in ques­tion sim­ply has very lit­tle to rec­om­mend them – although even that ex­cep­tion is not as sim­ple as it might ap­pear). Would that also es­tab­lish grounds for cen­sure if an aca­demic re­fused to rec­om­mend a stu­dent to a culi­nary school that pro­vided cakes to a store re­fus­ing to sell to gays and les­bians? Or how about re­fus­ing to write for a school that dis­crim­i­nated against Jews?

While, per­son­ally, I would refuse to write a let­ter in both cases, re­gard­less of the rules, I be­lieve I would be on more solid ground in the se­cond case. Why? Be­cause I would be specif­i­cally protest­ing the de­nial of the equal right to ed­u­ca­tion.

Be­fore we are aca­demics in the pro­fes­sional sense of the word, we are ed­u­ca­tors. As such, we should care­fully re­gard what the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights says in this re­gard: “Ed­u­ca­tion shall be di­rected to the full devel­op­ment of the hu­man per­son­al­ity and to the strength­en­ing of re­spect for hu­man rights and fun­da­men­tal free­doms…It shall pro­mote un­der­stand­ing, tol­er­ance and friend­ship among all na­tions, racial or re­li­gious groups.”

Cheney-Lip­pold was act­ing on the be­lief that study abroad pro­grammes in Is­rael are dis­crim­i­na­tory ow­ing to the prob­lems en­coun­tered by stu­dents of Arab her­itage in Is­rael – as doc­u­mented by sev­eral Jewish and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights groups. He has de­clared his sol­i­dar­ity with the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment, and Sanc­tions move­ment, which asks its en­dorsers not to carry on busi­ness as usual with Is­raeli state in­sti­tu­tions so long as Pales­tini­ans are de­nied (among other things) their right to ed­u­ca­tion and the “full devel­op­ment of their hu­man per­son­al­ity” on the ba­sis of their eth­nic­ity and na­tion­al­ity.

To call this a “po­lit­i­cal” is­sue is in­ac­cu­rate. It is much bet­ter char­ac­terised as an eth­i­cal is­sue that bears im­por­tantly on our sense of the val­ues, goals and as­pi­ra­tions of the ed­u­ca­tional en­ter­prise. The ba­sic prin­ci­ple is that ed­u­ca­tion rights are in­di­vis­i­ble.

The ar­gu­ment that Cheney-Lip­pold is deny­ing his stu­dent her aca­demic free­dom is weak in at least two re­gards. First, he is not the only per­son who could write for her, so she is not be­ing pre­vented from study­ing in Is­rael solely be­cause of his de­ci­sion. Se­cond, even if we took into ac­count all those stu­dents who might be af­fected by not re­ceiv­ing a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion from aca­demics hon­our­ing the boy­cott, their col­lec­tive num­ber could not even ap­proach the mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans whose hu­man rights are be­ing de­nied.

The very na­ture of boy­cotts is to dis­rupt the sta­tus quo. Peo­ple are made un­com­fort­able and in­con­ve­nienced. Thereby, they ex­pe­ri­ence but one iota of the de­pri­va­tion that is sys­tem­at­i­cally placed upon the ag­grieved group on whose be­half the boy­cott is hon­oured.

Rather than pro­tec­tively cry­ing out about the pos­si­ble harm they face, in­di­vid­u­als af­fected by a boy­cott should re­flect that it would be more ap­pro­pri­ate for peo­ple in­volved in ed­u­ca­tion to ex­plore and give a fair hear­ing to the rea­sons be­hind it – and be broad­minded enough to ac­knowl­edge that the dis­rup­tion is not aimed at them.

As ed­u­ca­tors, re­fus­ing to write for ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes and in­sti­tu­tions that have proven records of dis­crim­i­na­tion should be our obli­ga­tion. And, in re­fus­ing, we will have per­formed an act of ed­u­ca­tion.

There is no rule that says an aca­demic must write let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion. Pe­riod. Do­ing so is a con­ven­tion and a cour­tesy

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