58 groups call on U of Michigan to sanction professors who promote BDS

Pro-Israel organizations lambaste educator’s recent refusal to write letter of recommendation for student who wanted to study in Tel Aviv

An aerial view of Michigan Stadium as the sun rises on the University of Michigan campus. (University of Michigan/Flickr via JTA)
An aerial view of Michigan Stadium as the sun rises on the University of Michigan campus. (University of Michigan/Flickr via JTA)

Fifty-eight organizations have called on the University of Michigan to sanction professors who implement academic boycotts of Israel.

The letter, sent Friday to university president Mark Schlissel, was signed by Jewish, Israel advocacy and political organizations and organized by the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit seeking to combat campus anti-Semitism.

It referred to an incident last week, in which a professor at the school, John Cheney-Lippold, refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student, Abigail Ingber, who wanted to study abroad at Tel Aviv University, citing his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the country.

“I have extraordinary political and ethical conflict lending my name to helping that student go to that place,” Cheney-Lippold has told reporters.

University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold addresses the Chicago Humanities Festival in November 2015 (YouTube Screen Capture)

On Tuesday, the university said in a statement that it opposes academic boycotts of Israel and that “injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”

On Thursday, in a separate statement, Schlissel said that “we will be taking appropriate steps to address this issue and the broader questions it has raised.”

The signatories of Friday’s letter — which included groups such as the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, Christians and Jews United for Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America — strongly criticized Cheney-Lippold’s decision and called on Schlissel to make a statement that such behavior would not be allowed.

“Impeding a student’s ability to participate in a university-approved educational program in order to carry out political activism is reprehensible,” it read.

Cheney-Lippold’s decision has raised questions about academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts, although writing letters of recommendation is voluntary on the part of professors.

Abby Ingber asked John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of American culture, for a letter of recommendation to help her study abroad in Israel. (Facebook)

Hans-Joerg Tiede, the associate secretary of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, told Insider Higher Ed that AAUP does address whether faculty are obligated to write reference letters, but that “refusing to write a letter of reference on grounds that are discriminatory would appear to be at odds with the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics.”

John K. Wilson, the co-editor of the AAUP’s blog, “Academe,” told Insider Higher Ed that “it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation.” Wilson emphasized, however, that the professor should not be punished.

Masha Merkulova, the executive director of pro-Israel Club Z which publicized the incident, charged that Cheney-Lippold’s decision is anti-Semitic, as it came “solely because her chosen destination is Israel.” She accused the professor of holding Ingber to a double standard.

Cheney-Lippold rejected the notion, and said his decision was meant to urge Israel to comply with international law in its treatment of Palestinians. “The perennial claim of anti-Semitism I fully deny,” he told The Michigan Daily Monday. “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.”

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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