An associate professor in the American Culture program at the University of Michigan refused to write a recommendation for a student, Abigail Ingber, who seeks to study in Tel Aviv. John Cheney-Lippold informed the student, to whom he had said he would write on her behalf, and whom he told he would be happy to write for study in other countries, that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.” He explained that “for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”
Cheney-Lippold’s email to the student went viral over the internet, and phone calls and emails started coming into University of Michigan administrative offices expressing concern about discrimination and the imposition of faculty politics on a student seeking a recommendation to study in Israel.
Chair Alex Stern of the American Culture department at U-M, in which Cheney-Lippold is assigned and teaches, told me over the weekend that there had not been a departmental embrace of BDS, and she “took the incident seriously and was looking into it.”
Cheney-Lippold further clarified to the Michigan Daily Tuesday that he was mistaken about his claim that many departments had taken stands and said that his refusal to write was instead a “personal stance.”
He said: “I was following a call by representatives of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel in a very similar tactical frame as South Africa. The idea is that I support communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”
Nearly word for word, Cheney-Lippold recited the stock BDS rationale for boycott, seeing nothing wrong at all in parceling out his faculty service by a policy of discriminatory exclusion of students interested in study in Israel. Nor did he see anything wrong in doing so in an institution that is firmly on record as opposed to boycott because the boycott violates central university values. President Mary Coleman and Provost Martha Pollack stated in 2013 that “academic boycotts violate the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which are fundamental to our missions of education and research.”
On Monday, Sept. 17, in response to the stepped-up pressure, the University of Michigan released a statement once again affirming its opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “The University of Michigan has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education,” the statement read, referring to the statements the president and provost made in 2013 and also to another statement by members of the university’s governing board offered in 2017.
“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 continued.
But then the statement lost its purposefulness and force.
“The academic goals of our students are of paramount importance,” the statement said. “It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported.”
But the kicker: “It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their (sic) personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students.”
Only disappointing? Just disappointing? The remedy? “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.”
The remedy is that we will talk amongst ourselves about it. We will “clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.” This response is not a response, at least not a satisfactory one. A proper response would involve the pointed condemnation of behavior that violates standards of faculty professionalism.
In our view, the University of Michigan ought to be more than disappointed in addressing this revelation that at least one U-M faculty member is carrying out his own personal boycott. University leaders from the chair of American Culture to the current president and provost ought to condemn such activities, and they ought to begin an investigation whether similar de facto or stealth boycott behavior is occurring in other units. University personnel can interview and survey faculty and also interview students, asking if others have had similar experiences.
No faculty academic freedom exists to deny services to students on a discriminatory basis; this goes to the matter of faculty responsibility (to treat all students equitably and fairly) and to the ethics of faculty professionalism.
A quick look at U-M’s Professional Standards for Faculty indicates that the university will not tolerate conduct that hinders other members of the community in the exercise of their academic freedoms. The university is also prepared to act to prevent or remedy behaviors that interfere with, or adversely affect, a community member’s ability to learn. So how will the university act?
Cheney-Lippold’s action clearly aimed at adversely affecting the student’s opportunity to learn in Israel as part of her curriculum. We call on U-M to investigate the extent of de facto boycott activities being conducted by faculty in the university and to address the question related to standards of faculty professionalism and what should be the penalty for those who act to create a hostile environment for students seeking to study in Israel.
It is bad enough faculty can seemingly impose their politics at will in their relations with students. It is even worse that it appears to be without any accompanying penalty. The results of the investigation should be publicized and the outcome of the exploration of professional ethics should be clarified.
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He currently directs the Academic Engagement Network.