Recommendation letter boycott stirs campus debate from orgs, Regents

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 1:15am

University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold made waves on campus this week from rescinding his offer to write a letter of recommendation for LSA junior Abigail Ingber after realizing she requested the letter to apply to a study abroad program in Israel. The email exchange between the professor and Ingber was posted to Facebook in a screenshot Sunday by Club Z, an organization that works to empower and network Jewish students who are committed to Zionism.

Throughout the week, the letter has continued to garner both positive and negative reactions from the campus community.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Cheney-Lippold received death threats for his email to Ingber.

Some campus organizations, such as Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a Palestinian solidarity organization at the University, have come out in support of the American Culture professor. SAFE released a statement on Facebook Tuesday evening stating the organization stands in solidarity with the students and staff members boycotting Israeli universities.

Cheney-Lippold fielded criticism and claims of anti-Semitism from students and community members regarding his decision to revoke his recommendation letter.

SAFE’s statement begins by presenting examples of the human rights violations on Palestinian land, writing “there is no question of the violence and inequity perpetuated by settler-colonial Israeli apartheid.”

“We support and affirm Professor John Cheney-Lippold’s right to boycott Israel,” SAFE statement reads. “His actions are the same demanded by Palestinian civil society, and serve to recognize and resist forces committing human rights violations. To punish Professor Cheney-Lippold for his actions would curtail his own academic agency.”   

SAFE's statement points out how quickly the University responded to this incident. SAFE claims students have been placed on a political blacklist for speaking against human rights violations in Palestine, and the University has never released a statement on that issue.

“There has been no University statement on the matter,” the statement reads. “This blacklist is just one of several tangible barriers for students that will prevent them from engaging in not just study abroad programs, but academic programs, jobs, and admittance into Palestine/Israel.”

The University’s chapter of College Republicans, on the other hand, released a statement Monday evening calling the incident “deeply disturbing” and condemning Cheney-Lippold’s decision not to write the letter. The statement was written by Chapter President Dylan Berger.

“Since the 2016 Presidential Election, those at the highest levels of this University have worked tirelessly to silence student who dare to think independently,” Berger wrote. “As President of College Republicans at University of Michigan, it is my responsibility to advocate for students like Abigail who have been discriminated against in large part due to President Schlissel’s remarks. If President Schlissel is serious about restoring intellectual diversity on campus, he will terminate professor John Cheney-Lippold and retract his remarks that ostracized a significant portion of the student body of the of the university that he claims to lead.”

University President Mark Schlissel spoke about the letter at Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Regents. He restated sentiments from a Monday press release from the University’s Office of Public Affairs, which affirmed the University’s strong opposition to a boycott of Israeli universities. Schlissel did not say anything about the employment status of Cheney-Lippold.

“The academic aspirations of our students — and their academic freedom — are fundamental to the University of Michigan and our teaching and research missions,” Schlissel said. “We are a large and diverse public university, and the individual opinions of our community range widely on many issues. But personal views and politics should never interfere with our support of students. It is counter to our support of students.”

Schlissel went on to say the University will continue to look into the issue.

“It is counter to our values and expectations as an institution,” he said. “The regents, executive officers and I have been deeply engaged in this matter. We will be taking appropriate steps to address this issue and the broader questions it has raised.”

University Regent Denise Ilitch (D) echoed Schlissel’s statement at the meeting, recalling the University’s mission to its students.

“At the University of Michigan the best interest of our students is paramount,” she said. “This type of profoundly exclusionary contact by a University of Michigan professor (goes) completely against our mission. Let’s call this what it really is — anti-Semitic.”

Others took issue with Ilitch’s description of the event as anti-Semitic. University alum Yonah Lieberman wrote on Twitter that attaching that label to the event blew it out of proportion.

“This is outrageous conflation of being antisemitic and anti-Israel,” Lieberman tweeted. “When Nazis are marching in the streets and Trump is in the White House, it is way, way too dangerous to conflate the two.”

Lieberman is a founder of IfNotNow, a Jewish organization that calls on American Jews to abolish the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Ingber was unable to comment to The Daily earlier this week due to waiting on proceedings with the University.