As alumni of the University of Michigan, we are profoundly disappointed with the University’s decision to discipline Prof. John Cheney-Lippold, who has been punished for declining to write a letter of recommendation to a student applying to study in Israel. The University cites professorial duty to the student body as its primary motive for taking these actions. However, weaponizing letters of recommendation — which are entirely up to the discretion of the instructor — to selectively punish those who fall out of line with the University’s complicity in systems of oppression and status quo in Palestine is only the latest in a long string of the University’s hypocrisies.
The University is selective in its application of freedom of speech.
Free speech does not exist ethereally in a vacuum, but in the real world of material life. Free speech costs resources, and far disproportionately, we see the University willing to shoulder those costs for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists but not for progressives and students of color. This University was open to providing a space and platform for Richard Spencer, a well-known anti-Semitic white supremacist, to rally neo-Nazis on campus. It did not join the many academic institutions nationwide that took a firm stance against Spencer, purporting that it supports “freedom of speech” universally. When students of color rightfully pointed out the emotional and physical violence Spencer brings and requested the University prioritize their safety, their requests were categorically denied due to the legal fees required to battle Spencer in court. Despite the fact that Spencer ultimately did not make an appearance on campus, the University’s willingness to forgo the requests of students of color exposes a serious double-standard on who the University deems valuable and worth protecting and who it deems disposable.
Why does the University choose to apply this principle of free speech to a Nazi but not a member of its own community who wishes to support human rights as outlined by United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Israel/Palestine conflict?
The University’s claims of protecting its Jewish students is invalid.
The University is buying into and fanning the flames of a false binary that claims being pro-Palestinian means being anti-Jewish. This “Muslims vs. Jews” rhetoric is a wrong and deliberately disingenuous framing of this issue. It is a favorite fall-back argument of supporters of Israel when Palestinian human rights violations are brought up. As mentioned countless times before, activism around Palestinian rights has a long and rich history of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity and siblinghood. There are many Jewish organizations around the world, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, that support peaceful resolution and justice in the Israel/Palestinian conflict by way of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, demonstrating that this conflict is not a religious issue, but a human rights issue. The University cannot continue to make false claims to divide its student body.
The University’s move has very little to do with a desire to protect its Jewish community and much more to do with protecting itself. If the University truly has the interests and safety of its Jewish students at heart, why was the administration so willing to give Spencer, a veritable racist anti-Semite who routinely uses Nazi rhetoric and salutes, space on campus to spread neo-Nazism?
The University has a history in abuse of power.
As alumni, we still remember the infamous Brendan Gibbons cover-up, where the administration was involved in a mass cover-up of rape in the student-athlete community and ensuing threats to the survivor. Gibbons, a former kicker for Michigan football, was accused of rape by a student during his freshman year and his roommate at the time, Taylor Lewan, threatened to also rape the woman if she pressed charges. Despite two fellow football players corroborating the survivor’s story, Gibbons and Lewan faced no consequences from the University for years. Even after various blogs and publications reported on the cover-up, the University administration, led by then-University President Mary Sue Coleman, continued to lie on behalf of Gibbons. This continued for several years until publicity and calls for action reached a critical mass and the University was forced to “permanently separate” from Gibbons. The hush-up was so massive and egregious that the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education led an investigation into the University’s handling of the case.
The University administration will continue to abuse its power to protect its upper echelons and whoever else it deems worthy at the expense of its most vulnerable.
The University will not silence us.
To most, the University’s acts of self-preservation and protection of an influential few at the expense of freedoms and rights of others is not entirely surprising. But it continues to be heartbreaking. The University must do better to protect all of its communities, not just those with the most influence, power or money.
We understand that there are many folks at U-M who are at their most vulnerable right now, especially staff and faculty members without tenure, whose freedom of speech the University has swiftly and decidedly devalued through their aggression against Cheney-Lippold. Please know: There are alumni who stand behind you and support you. We are watching. We are here for you. And we will not remain silent.
The authors of this op-ed have written a letter of support for John Cheney-Lipoold. Read and sign it here.