Op-ed: Recent campus BDS activities are deeply concerning

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 1:16pm

As alumni of the University of Michigan, we were deeply disappointed by the recent actions of two instructors who refused to support students’ desire to study abroad in Israel. While we applaud the University for disciplining Prof. John Cheney-Lippold, we are concerned that the campus climate is undergoing a dangerous trend toward restricting academic freedom and unfairly singling out students who pursue educational opportunities involving Israel.

The recent actions of Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson, a graduate student instructor who similarly refused a letter of recommendation to an undergraduate student, are not isolated incidents. During a mandatory lecture for U-M art students, a speaker displayed two anti-Semitic images — one likening Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler and another depicting Jews as pigs drinking money from a bottle. Such dehumanizing imagery and hateful rhetoric have repeatedly led to violence against Jewish communities and have no place on campus. The timing of the presentation and denial of letters of recommendation is alarming to us and leads us to believe that more must be done to ensure a safe learning environment for students and protect The University’s academic integrity.

By refusing to pen letters of recommendation for Israel-bound U-M students, Cheney-Lippold and Peterson are allowing their personal beliefs to interfere with and obstruct students’ educational goals. Not only should Peterson be similarly disciplined for her refusal, but the University must strengthen its policies to ensure that faculty members and instructors will prioritize support for students over personal political agendas.

A recent piece by other U-M alumni, published in these pages, misguidedly alleges that the University is “weaponizing” letters of recommendation by punishing professors who pick and choose when to support students based on their political views.  In fact, it is the instructors themselves who are weaponizing such letters to promote a campaign that violates the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and U-M students. While professors should be able to decide whether or not to write a letter of recommendation for their students, that decision should be based on academic merit and not political bias.

Academic boycotts of Israel in general demonstrate peak hypocrisy for those claiming to support academic freedom. The free exchange of ideas is central to the University’s mission and has been a proud tradition for two centuries. Trying to shut down engagement with Israeli universities — routinely ranked among the best in the world — unjustly limits educational opportunities for students at the University and beyond.

Even more alarming are the reports that Cheney-Lippold used his power as a professor to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel during classes that are completely unrelated to the subject. BDS unfairly singles out Israeli businesses and supporters, seeking to isolate  the state of Israel via international and economic pressure. It is very concerning that a movement rooted in anti-Semitism and extremism has not only made its way into the classroom at the University, but that it has directly affected students’ ability to pursue higher education. As   Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole wrote, Cheney failed in his responsibility to teach students material related to his field of expertise.

Thankfully, opposition to BDS has always been the policy of the University’s administration. University President Mark Schlissel’s recent statement that “the academic aspirations of our students — and their academic freedom — are fundamental to the University of Michigan, and our teaching and research missions,” gives us hope that the University will prevent bias and propaganda from damaging the student experience. However, the administration must continue to make it clear that it will not tolerate abuses of power by biased instructors.

As U-M students, we were proud to attend a university that supported our academic endeavors, regardless of our own opinions or individual pursuits. As a growing coalition of Michigan  U-M alumni and parents who are members of Alums for Campus Fairness, we hope campus leaders continue to speak out and act against hatred and bias that affect Michigan U-M students’ ability to maximize their academic potential.

Alums for Campus Fairness is a non-profit organization that brings together alumni to counter anti-Semitism