Professional institutions caution against sanctions in Israel letter boycott

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 5:16pm

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Courtesy of the American Political Science Association

Two prominent educational and professional institutions — the American Association of University Professors and the American Political Science Association — are urging the University of Michigan to reconsider sanctions imposed on American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold. Cheney-Lippold recently became ineligible for a salary raise for one year and ineligible for sabbatical credits for two years after rescinding his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student studying abroad in Israel, as part of an academic boycott. Cheney-Lippold was joined last week by Rackham student Lucy Peterson, a Political Science graduate student instructor who also declined to write a letter for a student studying in Israel. Political Science prof. Juan Cole published a blog post over the weekend announcing he would also refuse reccommendations for students studying in the occupied West Bank. 

University graduate students also published an open letter last week with over 200 signatures affirming their support for Cheney-Lippold and Peterson.

Interim LSA Dean Elizabeth Cole informed Cheney-Lippold of sanctions in a letter dated Oct. 3.

“Your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students,” Cole wrote.

In a letter from AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede dated Oct. 16, Tiede claimed the sanctions on Cheney-Lippold violate the association’s standards of due process. These standards first call for an informal inquiry by a faculty committee to determine whether proceedings to impose sanctions are necessary and then call for the administration to demonstrate adequate cause for sanctions “in a hearing of record before an elected faculty body.” In an interview with The Daily on Wednesday, Tiede said the University had not yet responded to the letter.

“The reason I pointed to the severity of the punishment is that we do recognize that minor sanctions, such as a letter of reprimand, can be imposed without a full hearing. The ‘due’ part in due process is always relative to the severity of the punishment,” Tiede said. “But a major sanction, and what I was appealing to in the letter was that I think most people would consider being ineligible for a merit increase and ineligible for a sabbatical for some period of time to be not akin to a letter of reprimand but to have material consequences.”

The premise of the standards, Tiede said, was that faculty are “better qualified” than administrators to determine “whether a particular action of a faculty member was a proper exercise of academic freedom or was not.”

In the open letter addressed to Cole, graduate students from the University expressed their support for Cheney-Lippold and Peterson, writing the University’s response had also been politically motivated.

“The university president’s statement declares that ‘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. “This is an explicitly political stance in support of the apartheid state of Israel and, therefore, cannot be considered neutral, but, rather, one wholly aimed at shutting down BDS activism on campus and, more generally, on silencing support of and solidarity with Palestinians.”

On Sept. 24, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs released a statement on faculty responsibilities with regard to writing letters of recommendation, referencing the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics.

“Within the guidelines set forth by the American Association of University Professors, and ‘demonstrate(ing) respect for students,’ faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide such a letter,” SACUA’s statement read.

In a public forum for regent candidates Monday, incumbent candidate Andrea Fischer Newman (R) said SACUA had condemned Cheney-Lippold. Michael Atzmon, a SACUA member in the audience, responded the statement was not a condemnation.

Writing on behalf of Peterson in a letter dated Oct. 15, the American Political Science Association said the sanctions “raise questions of procedural fairness” due to the lack of clarity surrounding an instructor’s obligations to write a letter of recommendation.

“That the instructor we are concerned about is, in this case, also an early career graduate student only heightens our concerns that outsize sanctions may be imposed on one who could reasonably argue that the vague, unspecified, and changing norms regarding writing letters of recommendation were not adequately conveyed in advance,” the letter read.

On Oct. 9, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert published an open letter to the campus announcing the creation of a panel to “examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and faculty members’ responsibilities to students,” and “make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students.”

The letter from the APSA also expressed the concern that the sanctions “give at least the appearance of pressuring instructors to conform to the university’s position on what the university has itself termed not only an issue of university values but also a matter of political belief.”

The letter defended Cheney-Lippold’s participation in the academic boycott on the grounds that the opportunity to study at Israeli universities is not equally accessible to all students in the United States. The letter specifically noted the case of Lara Alqasem, who was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for 15 days on her way to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on a student visa because of her former position as president of the University of Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is a part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

“Given the unequal opportunities to study abroad in Israel - which in many ways violates the University of Michigan’s own Non-Discrimination Policy - the decision to not recommend a student to such a program is not only legitimate, but far from punishable,” the letter read.