Professor John Cheney-Lippold and graduate instructor Lucy Peterson refused to write letters of recommendation for students seeking to study in Israel
You remember John Cheney-Lippold, the U. Michigan professor who agreed to write a recommendation for a student, then pulled it when he realized the student intended to use it to study in Israel.
We covered the story in BDS Bully: U. Michigan Prof discriminates against student wanting to study in Israel.
I argued that this conduct was not within Cheney-Lippold’s academic freedom.
He is free to not deal with Israel himself, but he can’t abuse his position of power over students to discriminate and to deprive students of educational opportunities because of his political beliefs. It’s unethical and a breach of trust.
John Cheney-Lippold is an unethical bully who does not deserve the position of trust he holds. He abused that trust to damage a student’s academic freedom and education, and must be held to account.
This is not a First Amendment issue, it’s an issue of conduct on the job that violated U. Michigan policy rejecting the academic boycott of Israel. This also is not a matter of Cheney-Lippold’s academic freedom. He could refuse to write recommendation letters for anyone, but once he takes on that responsibility in his capacity of a faculty member, he cannot discriminate and cannot impose his own politics on students.
What form that discipline takes will depend on U. Michigan policies and procedures. But if U. Michigan does nothing, it is opening the door to dozens of other professors forcing their political choices on students.
Repeatedly over the last several years I’ve made the point that BDS will destroy academia long before it destroys Israel. That’s playing out at U. Michigan right now, where a pro-BDS professor has launched what amounts to an academic war on a student.
I didn’t think U. Michigan would do anything other than pay lip service to the University’s rejection of BDS.
But surprise, there was some discipline imposed, though it amounted to a slap on the wrist for this offense. The Detroit News reported:
The University of Michigan is disciplining the professor who sparked a global controversy after he refused to recommend a student for study in Israel because of his support for Palestinians, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News.
John Cheney-Lippold, a tenured American and digital studies associate professor, will not get a merit raise during the 2018-19 academic year and can’t go on his upcoming sabbatical in January or another sabbatical for two years, according to the letter signed by Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of UM’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
More: Israeli official criticizes UM lecture
He could also face additional discipline, up to and including dismissal, if a similar incident occurs in the future, Cole wrote in the 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,” according to Cole’s letter, which The News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. “This letter is a strong warning that your behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated.”
“In the future, a student’s merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation. You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”
While the discipline itself was mild, the warning against further misconduct was significant. It sets a marker for other faculty who violate the academic freedom of students.
This is not a problem limited to Cheney-Lippold. I have little doubt that many of the over 1400 faculty who have signed onto the academic boycott of Israel engage in similar unethical misconduct. It just usually is not so blatant.
The Washington Post reports that a second instructor at U. Michigan, Lucy Peterson, withdrew a recommendation letter for a student who wanted to study in Israel:
An instructor at the University of Michigan went back on her commitment last week to provide a letter of recommendation for a student after learning that the undergraduate’s destination for a study-abroad program was Israel — in a previously unreported incident that is the second such case on the Ann Arbor, Mich., campus in the past month….
Jake Secker is a 20-year-old junior from Great Neck, N.Y., majoring in economics and minoring in entrepreneurship. His father is Israeli, and Secker has made five trips to the nation he considers his “home away from home.” But since he was a young boy, he has longed for something more — actually living in Israel for a stretch of time. This winter, a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University could fulfill that aspiration, he hopes.
As part of the application process, Secker sought a reference from a teaching assistant, known at Michigan as a graduate student instructor, or GSI.
“Hi Lucy!” he wrote Monday, Oct. 1, to his GSI from an introduction to political theory course from last year. “Hope you had a great summer!”
“I am in need of an academic letter of recommendation to study abroad next semester and if you can do that for me that would be greatly appreciated,” he explained.
She replied the same day. “Totally! I’d be delighted,” wrote a teaching assistant he identified as Lucy Peterson who, according to her Facebook profile, is a political theory student at the university.
According to an email provided by Secker, Peterson inquired: “What program are you applying to? Send along whatever information I need, and I’ll let you know when I submit it.”
Secker thanked her and told her he was applying to study at Tel Aviv University. She then replied to say that she couldn’t provide the reference, Secker said.
“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 explained. “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.”
She added, “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.”
The faculty-driven anti-Israel problem at U. Michigan is intense, as demonstrated by a third incident in which students in a course were required to attend a guest lecture comparing Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler.
BDS, recently endorsed by the student government at U. Michigan – Ann Arbor, has created a toxic atmosphere on campus, as it does everywhere it takes hold.
October 10, 2018
Dear President Schlissel,
Our organizations, together with our hundreds of thousands of members and supporters, strongly commend
you for your statement outlining the steps you will be taking to ensure that the academic boycott of Israel is
not implemented at U-M, and for taking disciplinary actions against Professor John Cheney-Lippold for his
discriminatory and “inappropriate” behavior. We appreciate that Cheney-Lippold was told he could face
additional disciplinary measures, including dismissal, if a similar incident occurs in the future.
Your strong statement and the sanctioning of Cheney-Lippold are in line with what our groups had urged in
previous correspondences with you (sent 9/21 and 9/30). We sincerely value your strong leadership on this
matter and hope that other university presidents will take similar steps to ensure that faculty will not be
permitted to implement the academic boycott of Israel and deprive U.S. students of their educational and
Thank you, once again, for all that you have done thus far. We welcome your actions to date, and we look
forward to hearing the results of the panel you created to explore policy changes with regard to this issue.
BDS is a violation of academic freedom, and cannot co-exist with a free society that cherishes the exchange of ideas and supports educational opportunities for students.
I am surprised that U. Michigan did something, but something is not enough. There needs to be a clear guideline and discipline that makes sure pro-BDS faculty cannot bully and impose their hateful ideology on students.DONATE
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