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Opinion: When faculty put their politics first, students lose


Joseph Watson Jr. is the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Watson was an appointee in the George W. Bush administration where he led the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s domestic policy office.

This is his first guest column for the AJC Get Schooled blog. He takes on a controversial issue -- whether the personal politics of faculty members should influence dealings with students. Watson cites the recent case of a University of Michigan professor who rescinded his offer to write a recommendation for a student seeking to study abroad when he realized the program was in Israel. 

In an email to the student, Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold said:  “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

By Joseph Watson Jr.

The recent news that a University of Michigan professor rescinded a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad, after learning that it would take place in Israel, underscores the problems that arise when faculty put their personal politics ahead of the interests of students. Quite simply, students lose. 

The professor attributed his decision to rescind the offer to write a letter of recommendation to his participation in a boycott of that nation. But, regardless of opinions on the soundness of the boycott of Israel, the personal political biases of faculty rarely benefit students.  

As a professor at the University of Georgia who directs the first program in the nation aimed at preparing students for careers in political communications and issue advocacy, I instruct students with a wide variety of political perspectives. It is not uncommon for a student to ask me for a letter of recommendation for an internship in an organization with political positions counter to my own. Students expect and deserve to be treated fairly when they approach faculty for recommendations and references.  

I believe my role as a faculty member is to help students achieve their goals and become articulate advocates for them, not to mirror my own worldview. To this end, although I am a pro-life Catholic, I recently served as a reference for and advised a student interested in working at Planned Parenthood because of her interest in doing so. Similarly, though I am a conservative Republican who served in President George W. Bush’s administration, I provided a reference to a progressive student interested in working for the Democratic Party of Georgia.  

I would be doing a disservice to my students if I imposed a political litmus test upon the opportunities that I deemed appropriate for letters of recommendation or references based on my own personal political views. I would also be eroding the trust that should exist between students and faculty.  

My perspective on the importance of faculty putting student needs ahead of their personal politics is also informed by my own experience as a student. As a law student, a friend and I volunteered to submit an amicus brief and participate in an oral argument before a federal court of appeals under the advisement of a member of our law school’s faculty.

When the faculty member learned of the argument that we intended to make in the brief, one consistent with the decisions of other federal courts but counter to his own, his initial interest and support for our work evaporated and became only cursory. I will never forget the feeling of disappointment and the fear of going through that process without the active support of faculty. As a faculty member, I keep that feeling in mind as I work with students. 

It is no secret that many institutions of higher learning are home to left-of-center thought where, according to a 2014 study, there is a 6-to-1 ratio of liberal to conservative professors at colleges and universities across the country. It is in this climate that the kind of activism reflected in the boycott in question arises as some faculty achieve notoriety by taking positions on issues that are well outside of mainstream American thought. Thus, the divide that exists between the views and politics of academia and everyday Americans widens, while faculty obligations to students are too often forgotten. 

Ultimately, faculty members have to remember that while our own research, service, and activism are important to us, our institutions exist to educate students and to help them to achieve their ambitions, not our own.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.