UM professor refuses reference for student to study in Israel

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
John Cheney-Lippold, University of Michigan associate professor

The University of Michigan is disassociating itself from a faculty member's decision to refuse to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study in Israel.

John Cheney-Lippold, a UM associate professor who teaches and writes on the relationship between digital media, identity and the concept of privacy, had planned to write the student a recommendation letter to study abroad but changed his mind after learning she wanted to study in Israel. He cited a boycott in support of Palestinians for his decision.

A copy of an email he wrote to the student explaining his decision has been shared widely among UM parents on Facebook. 

"I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail," Cheney-Lippold wrote to the student. "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.

"I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize," the professor wrote. "But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter."

Cheney-Lippold could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday through email, social media and his office phone.

But in an interview with the Michigan Daily, UM's student newspaper, the associate professor said he felt compelled to take a personal stand.

“I have no bad will against the student, and I would have very gladly written a letter for any other graduate program or study abroad," he told the campus publication. "The idea is that I am just one person, and by refusing to write that letter or at least rescinding it, I tried to keep to my conscious (sic) and to the fact that I believe that the boycott is a good tactic to enhance human rights and to get everyone in Israel-Palestine to have what international criminal court and the U.N. in general has requested, which is equal rights for everybody.”

In a statement, UM's public affairs office contradicted Cheney-Lippold's statement that academic departments were supporting the boycott.

"The University of Michigan has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education," according to the statement, issued late Monday. "That position has been stated publicly by university leaders, including this statement from the president and provost in 2013 and this statement from members of the university’s governing Board of Regents 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."

At an event Tuesday near UM's campus, President Mark Schlissel declined to comment, saying that he stands by the university statement.

Last December, six of eight members of UM's Board of Regents signed a resolution rebuffing calls from student leaders to consider divesting the university’s endowment from companies that allegedly committed human rights violations against Palestinians.

Cheney-Lippold's action has stirred controversy as members of UM's Jewish community prepared to commemorate Yom Kippur, a holy day of prayer, fasting and atonement, beginning at sundown Tuesday.

Michigan Hillel, which supports almost 60 independent student groups for 6,700 Jewish students on UM's campus of approximately 46,000 students, issued a statement criticizing Cheney-Lippold's action.

"This professor’s decision is antithetical to the academic values of our university," said Tillie Shames, executive director of UM Hillel, in a statement on Monday. "A professor’s political views should not factor into any student’s access to learn, including studying in Israel."

It also caught the attention of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a Palestinian solidarity organization at UM.

In a statement, the group said it stands in solidarity with students,
faculty and staff boycotting Israeli universities, citing what it called Israel's human rights violations against Palestinians, "from daily home demolitions to the imprisonment of thousands of innocent civilians to the illegal construction of settlements on Palestinian land."

"(Cheney-Lippold's) actions are the same demanded by Palestinian civil society, and serve to recognize and resist forces committing human rights violations," the group said in the statement. "To punish Professor Cheney-Lippold for his actions would curtail his own academic agency. We also want to underscore the double standard of 'consequences' faced by students who support the state of Israel. This student, for whatever inconveniences she may face in securing a recommendation letter, will undoubtedly be able to visit, study, and work in the country.

"We remind the campus community that Palestinian students and their allies continue to be blacklisted, targeted, and exiled from their home country for their identities," the group's statement said. "Palestinian students do not have the privilege of going back to Palestine, much less studying abroad. Where is the concern for their educational opportunities."

SAFE also questioned "the speed and force" with which the UM administration distanced itself from Cheney-Lippold's decision.

"It seems as though the administration and community are more interested in punishing a professor for exercising his right to express political views — views that may offend a powerful community on campus — than protecting the physical and emotional safety of Palestinian students," the group's statement said.

Darren Bogart, a UM sophomore who is Jewish, said it is a complicated situation and he had mixed feelings. But he did not support the professor's decision.

"The students are here to succeed," said Bogart. "If that particular student wanted to go to (Israel) and felt comfortable asking that professor and he originally said yes and then withdrew ... that is sort of a gray area of getting in the way of their job and what the university has hired him to do."

But Bogart said he acknowledged that Cheney-Lippold was supporting a cause he believes in.

"And it's more of a personal thing not supported by the university," Bogart said.