University disciplines instructor over denial of recommendation letter for study in Israel

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 3:16pm

The University of Michigan is disciplining American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold for rescinding his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student as part of a boycott against the state of Israel, a letter obtained by The Michigan Daily confirmed. In the letter, dated Oct. 3, interim LSA Dean Elizabeth Cole criticized his actions and reaffirmed the University does not support this boycott.

 

“To be clear, there are no University departments participating in the boycott and in fact, the University formally and publicly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” Cole wrote. “Your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students.”

 

The letter conveyed a strong warning that his behavior would not be tolerated in the future, in addition to imposing several academic sanctions. According to the letter, Cheney-Lippold will not be eligible for a salary increase for the 2018-2019 academic year, and his sabbatical eligibility and credits will be frozen for two years until the Fall 2020 semester.

 

“Please be advised that further conduct of this nature is subject to additional discipline, up to and including initiation of dismissal proceedings under Regents Bylaw 5.09,” Cole wrote. “Nothing in this letter is intended to discourage you from speaking on or advocating for matters that are of concern to you, which you are free to do. But interfering with a student’s academic aspirations, as you have done here, is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”

 

This response comes a month after John Cheney-Lippold, a professor in the American Culture Department, rescinded his offer to write a letter of recommendation for LSA junior Abigail Ingber after realizing the letter would be used in an application to a study abroad program in Israel as well. Cheney-Lippold was accused of anti-Semitism and received death threats for his response.

 

According to the Washington Post article, Lucy Peterson, a graduate student instructor at the University of Michigan, has rescinded her offer to write a recommendation letter for a student applying to study in Israel this winter. This is the second incident of a University instructor withholding their letter of recommendation to show solidarity with alleged humans rights abuses occurring in Palestine this semester, aafter Cheney-Lippold.  

LSA junior Jake Secker reached out to Peterson for a letter of recommendation to study abroad on Oct. 1, to which Peterson initially said she would be “delighted.” However, when Secker told her he planned to study at Tel Aviv University, she quickly informed him she would not write the letter as part of a boycott of Israeli institutions.

“I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf,” she wrote. “Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine … Please know that this decision is not about you as a student or a person, and I would be happy to write a recommendation for you if you end up applying to other programs.”

After this initial incident, University Public Affairs released a statement regarding the boycott, expressing its disappointment in University faculty letting their own political views limit the educational opportunities of other students.

“It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” the statement read. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

However, Cheney-Lippold quickly affirmed he holds no ill will towards the student in question, and the boycott is about holding institutions accountable to better human rights abroad.

“The perennial claim of anti-Semitism I fully deny,” Cheney-Lippold said. “I have no bad will against the student, and I would have very gladly written a letter for any other graduate program or study abroad. The idea is that I am just one person, and by refusing to write that letter or at least rescinding it, I tried to keep to my conscious and to the fact that I believe that the boycott is a good tactic to enhance human rights and to get everyone in Israel-Palestine to have what international criminal court and the U.N. in general has requested, which is equal rights for everybody.”

As reported in an earlier Daily article, this boycott comes on the heels of last year’s iteration of the #UMDivest movement, and the resulting Central Student Government resolution which called for the University to look into divesting from companies known for violating Palestinian human rights. Although the resolution passed last November with 23 votes in favor, the Board of Regents rejected to consider the resolution in an online statement the following December.

Secker stated he was aware of the previous incident with Ingber’s letter of recommendation, and in turn reached out to the board of Michigan Hillel, through which his complaint was sent to the Board of Regents.

“I’m friends with Abby, and I’d known what happened to her,” Secker said. “I was completely in shock. I didn’t think it would happen again.”

Secker also received an email Thursday from Rosario Ceballo, LSA associate dean for Social Sciences, in which she noted she was aware of such concerns regarding faculty views infringing upon student’s educational rights. The pair then met the next day, where the dean said she would write Secker’s letter of recommendation herself, and promised “some sort of change” in regard to his complaints.  

“I was recently informed about some concerns regarding your letter of recommendation,” Ceballo wrote. “I take these concerns very seriously and as a first step, I hope that we might meet so that we can talk in person about what happened.”

These incidents also come in the wake of a controversial event last week, where Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the Black Panthers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, spoke to an audience of University students and compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler  — stating they were both guilty of “genocide.”

Yet, in a statement released Friday, the University made clear it does not censor its speakers in order to protect the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

“The Stamps program is intentionally provocative and the school is clear with students about this,” the statement reads. “The school does not control or censor what speakers present.”

The Daily is posting the letter from Cole below in its entirety.

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