University ‘disappointed’ after professor refuses student reference over BDS

Michigan reiterates opposition to boycotts of Jewish state following John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to rescind recommendation offer to student who wants to study in Israel

A University of Michigan logo decorates a roundabout on the school's campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on July 20, 2015. (AP/Paul Sancya)
A University of Michigan logo decorates a roundabout on the school's campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on July 20, 2015. (AP/Paul Sancya)

The University of Michigan on Monday moved to distance itself from a staff member who refused to send a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel, saying that it opposes boycotts of the Jewish state.

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the university’s Department of American Culture, had said he would write an undergraduate’s reference letter for a semester abroad program, but rescinded the offer after finding out she wanted to study in Israel.

In a statement released late Monday, the public university said it was unhappy with Cheney-Lippold’s actions.

“It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” the school said.

The university said it “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.”

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

“No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a position that departs from this long-held university position,” the statement read.

The statement did not mention Cheney-Lippold but said it would engage faculty in “in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

“The academic goals of our students are of paramount importance. It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported,” the school, among the country’s largest public universities, said.

In 2017, the school’s governing board of regents rejected a pro-BDS student government resolution calling for it to divest from Israeli companies or firms doing business with Israel.

“Our university has long been a community that seeks to study and improve the human condition through our research and scholarship,” six members of the board wrote in a statement at the time. “We work together to better understand the most complex challenges we face on campus and beyond. We do this work through active engagement in the world around us. To boycott, divest or sanction Israel offends these bedrock values of our great university.”

Cheney-Lippold did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an email obtained by The Times of Israel on Monday, Cheney-Lippold had notified the student, identified only as Abigail, that he had not known she was planning on studying in Israel when he agreed to write her a recommendation.

“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” he wrote. “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.

Email sent by University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold informing a student he would not write her a letter of recommendation to study in Israel because he supports BDS. (Screen shot)

“I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize,” he went on. “But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”

After dropping his offer to recommend Abigail, Cheney-Lippold told her he would help her with applications for programs in other countries.

“Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I’d be happy,” he told her.

In December 2013, the American Studies Association voted in favor of endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, becoming the second such American scholarly group to do so.

The Anti-Defamation League denounced the associate professor Monday evening, with the organization’s CEO calling on the University of Michigan to make clear that it does not support his actions.

“Not acceptable,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt. “A student striving to learn and further their education should never be a victim of political bias. The university needs to publicly clarify it opposes the academic boycott of Israel.”

The state of Michigan passed a law last year prohibiting boycotts against individuals or a public entities of a foreign state. Without explicitly mentioning Israel, the measure restricts all state agencies from entering contracts with individuals who engage in a “boycott of a person based in or doing business with a strategic partner.”

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