Cherie Brown, founder and CEO of the National Coalition Building Institute in Silver Spring, Md., conducted an anti-Semitism training at U-M Hillel early this year. Credit: U-M Hillel
Cherie Brown, founder and CEO of the National Coalition Building Institute in Silver Spring, Md., conducted an anti-Semitism training at U-M Hillel early this year. Credit: U-M Hillel

U-M professor criticized for refusal to write recommendation letter for study in Israel.

University of Michigan officials, administrators, students and alumni reacted with criticism to Professor John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to rescind an offer to write a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program when he realized the student wanted to study in Israel.

John Cheney-Lippold
John Cheney-Lippold

Cheney-Lippold sent undergraduate Abigail Ingber of Warren, N.J., the following email:

 “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. But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”

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

Cheney-Lippold’s email went viral after Club Z, a California-based Zionist organization that trains and educates teens to advocate for Israel, posted a screenshot of the full text of the email on social media.

Many members of a U-M parents’ Facebook group expressed their outrage that the professor allowed his political beliefs to compromise his teaching role. On the website change.org, they are petitioning U-M President Mark Schlissel to sack the professor for his action. At press time, about 2,400 supporters have signed.

Mark Schlissel
Mark Schlissel

According to The University Record, a newsletter for U-M faculty and staff, Schlissel said at the Sept. 20 Board of Regents meeting that the faculty member’s view does not reflect the position of the university nor any department or unit on campus.

“We are a large and diverse public university, and the individual opinions of our community range widely on many issues,” Schlissel said. “But personal views and politics should never interfere with our support of students. It is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”

Schlissel said he, along with the Board of Regents and the university’s executive officers, has been deeply engaged in the matter and will take appropriate steps to address the issue and the broader questions it has raised.

Rick Fitzgerald, U-M assistant vice president for public affairs, told the JN he could not comment on what or any actions may be taken against Cheney-Lippold, who will be taking a previously planned leave for the winter semester of 2019.

Andrea Fischer Newman
Andrea Fischer Newman

U-M Regent Andrea Fischer Newman provided a timeline of events. She said Ingber asked for the letter in August. Cheney-Lippold’s tenure was approved on Sept 1. He wrote the refusal email on Sept. 5. Cheney-Lippold teaches and writes on the relationship between digital media, identity and the concept of privacy in the Department of American Culture in the School of Literature, Science and Arts.

In March 2014, Cheney-Lippold signed a petition with 31 U-M professors, including 15 in his department, in favor of the university academically boycotting Israel as part of #UMDivest. This campus movement 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.

In January 2017, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law that bans a boycott of a foreign state by individuals or public entities, though it made no direct mention of Israel or the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

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

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

Cherie Brown, founder and CEO of the National Coalition Building Institute in Silver Spring, Md., conducted an anti-Semitism training at U-M Hillel early this year. Credit: U-M Hillel
Cherie Brown, founder and CEO of the National Coalition Building Institute in Silver Spring, Md., conducted an anti-Semitism training at U-M Hillel early this year.
Credit: U-M Hillel

“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.”

Regent Newman said, “This is about a boycott of students, not of Israel, 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.

“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

The JN’s attempts to reach student Abigail Ingber were unsuccessful.

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

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

Tilly Shames
Tilly Shames

“I feel this act goes against the academic values of our university,” she 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 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.

“A professor’s political views should not factor into any student’s access to academic opportunities, including studying in Israel,” she wrote. “We appreciate the university’s serious attention to this matter.”

ZOA, ADL Weigh In

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) believes U-M did not go far enough in its statement.

Susan Tuchman
Susan Tuchman

“The University of Michigan leadership has to do more than simply express its disappointment in Professor Cheney-Lippold’s actions,” said a written statement from ZOA’s Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., director, Center for Law and Justice.

“The university’s leaders must clearly and forcefully condemn the professor’s conduct as discriminatory, a violation of academic freedom and a violation of the university’s policies.

“We expect the university to stand behind these policies, for the protection of this particular student and all students,” Tuchman said. “This professor and the entire university community must get the message that discriminatory anti-Israel conduct like this, which hurts students and violates academic freedom, will not be tolerated, and there will be serious consequences for engaging in it.”

Jonathan Greenblatt
Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told the JN, “Professor Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation is absolutely unacceptable. It demonstrates the damaging effect of anti-Israel boycotts. They do little more than shortchange students, limiting their academic freedom. In this case, an apparently qualified student has been denied an opportunity for intellectual inquiry simply based on the personal politics of the professor.

“His statement that he ‘would be happy’ to write other letters of recommendation for the student suggest that he is applying a double standard to study in Israel.

“The identification of Israel alone among all the nations of the world as worthy of boycott, according to the State Department’s working definition, potentially crosses the line from criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism.

Read the full ZOA response

Kenneth Waltzer, former head of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University who now directs the Academic Engagement Network, gives his views of U-M’s response in the Views section. Read it here.