The University of Michigan is offering to meet with several students to hear their concerns regarding the disciplining of American Culture Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold, who rescinded an offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student’s study abroad program in Israel as part of an academic boycott of the nation.
An Oct. 3 letter from Interim LSA Dean Elizabeth Cole informed Cheney-Lippold of the sanctions: a year-long wage freeze and ineligibility for sabbatical credits for two years. University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert also published an open letter to the campus affirming the University’s opposition to academic boycotts of Israel and announcing the creation of a faculty panel “to examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and faculty members’ responsibilities to students.”
“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,” the letter read. “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.”
Graduate students and faculty at the University, along with several professional and educational organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, published letters individually expressing their concerns with the sanctions against Cheney-Lippold and the lack of due process involved in their imposition.
“Under the guise of separating political commitments from our role as educators, the university administration has taken a clear political stance against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement,” a faculty letter read. “Irrespective of faculty positions regarding BDS, the President, Provost and Dean’s disciplinary actions threaten academic freedom and have had a chilling effect on workplace morale.”
Faculty and students delivered a letter from graduate students, which was signed by more than 200 supporters, as well as the faculty letter to Cole and Schlissel on Oct. 23. In a demonstration ahead of the letters’ delivery, Rackham student Bassam Sadiki took issue with the University framing its own position as neutral.
“Even though the administration opposes BDS, it is nevertheless wholly inappropriate to impose that position on members of the academic community at a public institution of higher education,” Sadiki said. “U of M’s official stance cannot be considered neutral, but instead is clearly intended to shut down BDS activism on campus and, more generally, to silence support of and solidarity with Palestinians.”
In a letter dated Oct. 26, Schlissel and Cole wrote to Walz to inform her they were taking students’ and professors’ concerns seriously. The letter did not mention the sanctions against Cheney-Lippold or whether the University was considering the calls to rescind them.
“It is clear that you and others have read our October 9 message to the university community that offers additional insight on these matters. We would underscore the point that the central issue here is not whether someone is for or against BDS or any particular movement or position on world developments,” the letter read. “Rather, it is about being clear that withholding letters of recommendation that an instructor would otherwise be willing to provide – based on the instructor’s personal or political views – fails to meet our university’s expectations for supporting students.”