UM professor John Cheney-Lippold (Screenshot) (Screenshot)
John Cheney-Lippold

“You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs,” the University of Michigan told anti-Israel lecturer Cheney-Lippold.

By: United with Israel Staff

The University of Michigan (UM) has taken action against the professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who sought to study at Tel Aviv University in an expression of support for the academic boycott of Israel, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News.

The professor, John Cheney-Lippold, was sanctioned by UM, will not get a merit raise during the coming academic year, and will not be allowed to 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.

He could face further discipline, including dismissal, if a similar incident occurs in the future, Cole wrote in the letter.

A Strong Warning

“Your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students,” Cole wrote. “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,” she underscored.

In an email sent on September 5, Cheney-Lippold told Jewish student Abigail Ingber, who had taken a course with him during the Spring 2018 semester, that he would have to rescind an earlier offer to write a letter of recommendation due to “politics.”

“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” wrote Cheney-Lippold, who teaches in the Department of American Culture’s Digital Studies program.

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” he said in reference to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

He initially told Ingber that UM embraced an academic boycott of Israel, then later clarified that he personally supported boycotts on the Jewish state.

Cheney-Lippold’s punishment comes as a second UM student reported being denied a letter of recommendation to study in Israel by an instructor who also cited an academic boycott of Israel as the reason for her refusal.

According to the Washington Post, Jake Secker asked Lucy Peterson, a graduate student instructor, for a letter of recommendation to study in Israel. She denied the request, citing a pledge to boycott Israeli institutions in support of the Palestinians.

Cheney-Lippold’s action generated outcry from Jews worldwide, which prompted more than 60 organizations to write to UM President Mark Schlissel.

Cheney-Lippold ‘Misuses’ Class Time

Besides outlining disciplinary action, Cole also criticized the Israel-boycotter for using class time in two courses he is teaching to discuss his views on the anti-Israel BDS movement and his decision to not write the letter.

“You did not honor your responsibility to teach your students the material on your syllabus related to your field of expertise,” Cole wrote. “Although this material was discussed in only one session, an entire class period represents a significant portion of your total contact hours with students over the semester. This use of class time to discuss your personal opinions was a misuse of your role as a faculty member.”

The letter also said Cheney-Lippold violated Ingber’s privacy in some statements he made to the media and “cast a national spotlight” on her.

“Your actions throughout this entire series of events have harmed your students and caused significant disruption to the Department of American Culture, the College, and the University as a whole,” Cole wrote.

Cole also corrected Cheney-Lippold for wrongly portraying the Israeli boycott as sanctioned by UM. “In fact, the University formally and publicly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” Cole wrote.

Cheney-Lippold has previously claimed that his actions were a form of resistance like other civil rights movements, and an act of free speech.

Cheney-Lippold’s ‘Anti-Semitic’ Actions

Radhika Sainath, a Palestine Legal staff attorney who was advising Cheney-Lippold, said his case had been referred to a local attorney.

Mark Ingber, Abigail’s father, said he thought that UM should have fired Cheney-Lippold, calling his actions “anti-Semitic.”

“The way he publicized everything and put his own personal beliefs ahead of the academic interests of the students and caused shame to the university and our daughter, that was sufficient basis for him to be terminated,” Ingber said.

He accused Cheney-Lippold of waiting until his tenure became effective on September 1 to deny his daughter a letter of recommendation, calling it “manipulative” so that he would be immune to discipline

“We are happy the university acted quickly,” he said. “It may not be the punishment we want but it’s a punishment and I know they are watching him and if he slips up again … then he will suffer further,” Ingber said, according to the Detroit Times.

Ingber said his daughter has been accepted by Tel Aviv University.

“We appreciate that the university is strongly upholding its student-centered values and reinforcing its opposition to boycotts against Israeli institutions,” Tilly Shames, executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel, said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called UM’s move “an important development and an appropriate reprimand of Professor Cheney-Lippold’s reprehensible conduct.”

“The University of Michigan should be loud and fully transparent, making clear that a professor’s personal politics should never interfere with the academic freedom of his students,” Greenblatt said. “We hope that there is policy established to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”