Michigan U punishes prof. for denying recommendation to Israel-bound student

John Cheney-Lippold won’t receive merit increase and could be sacked if he repeats ‘inappropriate’ action, interim dean says in reprimand letter

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold was recently disciplined by the school for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel. (YouTube Screen Capture)
University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold was recently disciplined by the school for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel. (YouTube Screen Capture)

A US university has sanctioned a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation to a student planning to study in Israel due to his support for an academic boycott of the Jewish state.

The University of Michigan won’t grant Prof. John Cheney-Lippold a merit increase during the 2018-19 academic year and won’t allow him to go on a sabbatical for two years despite his plans to go on one in January, The Detroit News reported Tuesday.

Last month, Cheney-Lippold declined to recommend junior Abigail Ingber for a semester abroad in Israel over his support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the country, or BDS.

The report cited a letter sent to Cheney-Lippold by Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of the university’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. She wrote that he could face additional discipline, including possible dismissal, if he is involved in a similar incident in the future.

“Your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students. This letter is a strong warning that your behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated,” Cole wrote in her October 3 letter, according to the report.

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

“In the future, a student’s merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation,” she added. “You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”

The letter also criticized Cheney-Lippold for using class time to discuss his views of Israel, the BDS movement and his decision not to write the recommendation letter for Ingber.

“You did not honor your responsibility to teach your students the material on your syllabus related to your field of expertise. … This use of class time to discuss your personal opinions was a misuse of your role as a faculty member,” the interim dean wrote.

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

“Your actions throughout this entire series of events has harmed your students and has caused significant disruption to the Department of American Culture, the College, and the University as a whole,” she said, adding that the University of Michigan “formally and publicly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

This week it emerged that a second academic at the university, graduate student instructor Lucy Peterson, similarly refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad in Israel, citing support of an academic boycott of the Jewish state.

At first, Peterson was enthusiastic about writing the letter when asked by Jake Secker, 20, a junior from Great Neck, New York. But then she learned that Secker was applying to study at Tel Aviv University, the Washington Post reported Monday.

Secker and Ingber are friends and have commiserated about their predicament, the Post reported.

Cheney-Lippold was said to refuse to comment on his punishment, but Radhika Sainath, a Palestinian attorney advising him, was quoted as saying the university was “violating John’s rights by compelling him to speak in favor of a program that is fundamentally discriminatory and violates human rights,” and that his discipline came “in response to an international pressure campaign.”

But the move was hailed by pro-Israel groups and by Ingber’s father, Mark, who spoke publicly for the first time, called Cheney-Lippold’s actions “anti-Semitic” and called on the university to fire him.

“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,” he said, according to The Detroit News, also alleging the professor had waited until receiving tenure before rejecting his daughter’s request.

But Ingber also praised the university’s decision. “It may not be the punishment we want but it’s a punishment and I know they are watching him and if slips up again … he will suffer further,” he said.

He added that Abigail learned this week that she had been accepted to study in Tel Aviv.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) hailed the university’s letter as a “an important development and an appropriate reprimand of Professor Cheney-Lippold’s reprehensible conduct.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO And National Director of the Anti-Defamation League testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“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. We hope that there is policy established to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt added.

Tilly Shames, who leads the University of Michigan Hillel Jewish group, said the letter “makes it clear that the university will not tolerate a professor interfering with a student’s academic aspirations, and we hope this decisive message will deter other instructors from taking similar action.”

The university also came under fire late last week after a student highlighted on social media that a required lecture for art students there featured a speaker who compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.

On Tuesday, Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, sent a letter to University of Michigan president Marc Schlissel calling on him to oppose anti-Israel hatred on campus in the wake of the lecture by former Black Panther artist Emory David for the Penny Stamps Speakers Series presentation of the Stamps School of Art & Design. He also referenced the Cheney-Lippold case.

“The time has come for you as head of the university to make a strong stand against what has clearly become a trend of vitriolic hatred against the Jewish state on your campus,” Bennett wrote to Schlissel, who is Jewish.

JTA contributed to this report.

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