University of Michigan block M on a hot air balloon.

U-M professor refuses to write recommendation for student desiring study abroad in Israel.

University of Michigan officials, administrators, students and alumni quickly criticized LSA Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to rescind an offer to write undergraduate Abigail Ingber a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program when he realized the country she wanted to study in was Israel.

John Cheney-Lippold Credit: University of Michigan
John Cheney-Lippold
Credit: University of Michigan

Cheney-Lippold sent Ingber the following email days after receiving his tenure:

“Dear Abigail,

I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail:

As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of the Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

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

The email went on to say he’d “be happy” to “write other letters” for Ingber.

The email went viral after Club Z, a California-based Zionist youth movement, posted a screenshot of the full text of the email on social media.

Many members of a parent’s Facebook group have expressed their outrage at a professor allowing his personal and allegedly anti-Semitic opinions to seep into his teaching abilities and, on change.org, are petitioning U-M President Mark Schlissel to sack the professor for his action.

Cheney-Lippold wrote the refusal email on Sept. 5 after being asked by Ingber in August. Cheney-Lippold teaches and writes on the relationship between digital media, identity and the concept of privacy in the department of American Culture.

Cheney-Lippold in March 2014 signed a petition with 31 U-M professors, including 15 in the American Culture Department in favor of the university academically boycotting Israel as part of #UMDivest, a campus movement that calls for the U-M Board of Regents to create a committee to investigate three companies operating in Israel and involved in alleged human rights violations against Palestinians.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2017 signed a law that bans boycott of individuals or public entities from a foreign state, though it made no direct mention of Israel or the BDS movement.

In December 2017, members of the Board of Regents rejected the Central Student Government’s approved resolution to form a committee to investigate divesting the university’s endowment from certain companies alleged to commit human rights violations against Palestinians.

When asked by the Jewish News by email if he would refuse to give a student a letter of recommendation if they chose to study in other countries where the LSA offers study abroad programs, like China, Russia or Jordan or the Palestinian territories, for example, Cheney-Lippold replied:

“If those countries enacted a system that treated one group as second-class citizens, enshrined that inequality into their Constitution and civil society in those countries asked for international support, then yes. I support all calls for equality and end to oppression. What’s at issue here is that Israel’s universities have developed weapons and military training, and Palestinians have specifically asked people to take a stand.”

Rick Fitzgerald, U-M assistant vice president for public affairs, cited statements made by the provost and president in 2013 and its governing board of regents in 2017 decrying any academic boycott of Israel by the university.

“No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a position that departs from this long-held university position,” Fitzgerald wrote. “There also is no doubt that members of our campus community have a wide range of individual opinions on this topic and many other topics. 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.

“It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow his or her personal political beliefs to limit the support he or she is willing to otherwise provide for our students,” he added.

“We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

Fitzgerald told the Jewish News he could not comment on what or any actions may be taken against Cheney-Lippold but added the professor will be taking a previously planned leave in the winter semester of 2019.

“This is about a boycott of students, not of Israel,” Regent Andrea Newman said. “It essentially creates both implicitly and explicitly a different status for students who are primarily Jewish who want to study in Israel. Imagine being a student who wants to study in Israel. Do you now have to pick classes, majors and universities based on who will write letters? The extended application of the professor’s ideology is destructive to education.

“Imagine a large class like economics. Do we have to have different sections based upon the willingness of faculty to write letters of recommendation to Israeli schools? This has nothing to do with the First Amendment or academic freedoms. Writing letters of recommendation is an accepted responsibility of teaching students. Assuming the student is academically qualified, and this student was, and this professor specifically recognized that, withholding a letter of recommendation because of his political [views] damages the education of this student.”

Michigan Hillel Reactions

U-M Hillel students and staff members also voiced their shock at the nature of the email.

Kendall Coden, chair of the U-M Hillel Governing Board, said he is proud to be part of the university community, which is “diverse and inclusive and nurtures productive discourse,” but he says he feels Cheney-Lippold’s action was inappropriate.

“I feel this act goes against the academic values of our university,” he wrote in a statement. “Professors should encourage their students to explore educational opportunities for themselves, not deny them. I believe that a student’s access to learn as they wish should not be restricted by their professor’s political views … I also hope that the university will support any student’s choice to study abroad in Israel, and that no other student will be put in this situation in the future.”

U-M Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames said the organization is actively addressing the concerns regarding the professor’s refusal to offer a letter of recommendation to a student applying to an Israeli university.

“The professor’s decision is antithetical to the academic values of the university, as it denies the student their right to the education they choose,” she wrote. “A professor’s political views should not factor into any student’s access to academic opportunities, including studying in Israel. We appreciate the university’s serious attention to this matter.”

Look for more to the story in the print JN Sept. 27.