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In the wake of controversies that have touched University of Michigan Jewish students, President Mark Schlissel published an open letter to the community on Wednesday, saying "we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment."

UM has created a panel of faculty membersto examine its policy to ensure that the political views of employees do not interfere with their responsibilities to students, Schlissel announced, as he acknowledged the important questions, along with the hurt, that the incidents stirred at UM and around the world.

The panel comes after the university disciplined a professor for declining to write a recommendation letter for a student who wanted to study in Israel because it conflicted with his political views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It also comes as a second student was denied a recommendation letter to study in Israel on the same grounds, and after some Jewish students were offended by a presentation during UM's Penny Stamps Speaker Series earlier this month.

"The incidents have caused hurt and made some members of our community feel that their religious identity and academic aspirations are not valued ... (and) have raised important questions around issues of personal beliefs, our responsibilities as educators, and anti-Semitism," Schlissel wrote in his letter.

Read more:UM disciplines prof over Israel letter controversy

"We want everyone in our Jewish community and beyond to know that we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment where everyone is given a chance to succeed and pursue the academic opportunities they have earned," Schlissel wrote. "First and foremost, this applies to our students. These are core values of our university, and even in moments of turmoil and strong disagreement, they guide our work and give us a path forward."

That's why he, along with UM Provost Martin Philbert and the Board of Regents, established the panel,to be chaired by former UM President James Duderstadt, who is also a professor of science and engineering. The panel will look at policies of peer institutions and gather input from the UM community before it clarifies and possibly creates a new policy on the intersection of individual faculty members' political thoughts and ideology and their responsibilities to students, according to Schlissel.

"Withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views does not meet our university’s expectations for supporting the academic aspirations of our students," Schlissel said. "Conduct that violates this expectation and harms students will not be tolerated and will be addressed with serious consequences. Such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission."

John Cheney-Lippold, a tenured American and digital studies associate professor, sparked a global controversy last month after he declined to write a letter of recommendation for one of his students, Abigail Ingber, because she wanted to study for a semester in Tel Aviv.He told her that he was embracing an academic boycott of Israel to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, who accuses the Jewish state of human rights violations.

UM officials sent a letter to him this week, informing him that he will not get a merit raise during the 2018-19 academic year and can't go on his upcoming sabbatical in January or another sabbatical for two years. The letter also said he could face more discipline, up to and including dismissal, if it happens again.

Some in the academic community thought it was inappropriate for UM to sanction Cheney-Lippold.

Bill V. Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, was among a group of academics who signed a letter posted online, standing with Cheney-Lippold.

Reached via email, Mullen said that Cheney-Lippold's support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is based in international law and human rights, calling for an end to "legally sanctioned discrimination against Palestinian and Arabs living under Israeli occupation."

"Supporting BDS is like supporting the Birmingham bus boycott during the civil rights period," Mullen said. "Disciplining Professor Cheney-Lippold today for supporting Palestinian human rights is like punishing Rosa Parks for not giving up her bus seat in 1955. The University of Michigan should be ashamed.”

Mullen added that faculty members always use their discretion before writing a letter of recommendation.

"No exception should be made to compel a faculty member to write a letter, any time, anywhere," Mullen said. "In this case, the professor is being asked to support enrollment — and financial gain from tuition dollars — at a university which clearly violates Palestinian human rights.  The right to uphold human rights should always be protected under free speech and academic freedom in any university."

David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University, Northridge, agreed.

"I support Professor Cheney-Lippold’s decision not to write the letter of recommendation for the same reason I would support a decision not to write a letter of recommendation for a student seeking a summer internship with the KKK or a student in the 1980s seeking to study in apartheid South Africa," Klein said.

"The Supreme Court upheld a baker’s right not bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, so why can’t a professor refuse to write a letter in support of visiting the racist, apartheid state of Israel? I think that President Schlissel should resign."

Cynthia Franklin, an English professor at University of Hawaii, added that boycotting is a constitutionally protected right.

"It is chilling that John Cheney-Lippold is being disciplined, in violation of his free speech and academic freedom," Franklin said. "It is crucial that we support Cheney-Lippold and others like him at a time when, in the name of free speech, Nazi and other white supremacist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic groups are holding events on college campuses; during a time when non-violent legitimate political expression is being penalized; and during a time when Trump appointee to head of the office of Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus is working to enforce a definition of any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic."

Palestinian advocates also criticized UM's handling of the controversy.

"It’s disgraceful that President Mark Schlissel is using the language of equity and inclusion to coerce teachers at his university to act against their principles and violate the Palestinian picket line against patently inequitable and exclusionary Israeli institutions," said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. 

But others, including Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, commended Schlissel's action and the sanctions against Cheney-Lippold. 

"UM has shown leadership in curbing this discriminatory behavior and stood up for all of its students' civil and academic rights with this precedent," Rossman-Benjamin said. "We fully commend UM for the steps taken thus far. ... Hundreds of faculty serving on U.S. campuses have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.  We hope other university presidents will follow President Schlissel’s leadership."

Mark Ingber, the father of the student who was denied a recommendation letter by Cheney-Lippold, said he wrote an email to Schlissel, thanking him for disciplining the associate professor and establishing the panel.

"That's really moving things forward," said Ingber. "This is happening throughout the country. In other universities where students are faced with this BDS plague and the universities really don’t know how to deal with it, I am hoping Michigan is going to set the right standard that could be adopted by other universities throughout this country."

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit also issued a statement commending Schlissel but listing other steps it believes should be taken, including establishing a university policy on letters of recommendation and implementing training that addresses anti-Semitism.

"This latest news is an important step in the right direction, but more work remains," according to the statement.

Cheney-Lippold's discipline comes as Lara Alqasem — a 22-year-old Florida student who planned to study at Hebrew University of Jerusalem — has been detained in the Israeli international airport because of suspicions that she supports the BDS movement. Her case is being considered a test case following an Israeli law that was passed last year banning foreigners from entering the country if they support the boycott of the Jewish state.

The disciplining of Cheney-Lippold also comes as a second UM student has reported being denied a letter of recommendation to study in Israel, with the instructor also citing an academic boycott. 

Student Jake Secker asked Lucy Peterson, a UM graduate student instructor, for a letter of recommendation to study in Israel. But she denied the request, according to the Washington Post.

"As we have stated, UM strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and no school, college, department or unit at our university endorses such a boycott," Schlissel wrote. "Our view is that educators at a public university have an obligation to support students’ academic growth, and we expect anyone with instructional responsibilities to honor this fundamental university value. Our students deserve to be afforded all of the opportunities they have earned through their academic merit. We will work to make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support."

In his letter, Schlissel also addressed for the first time the Oct. 4 incident during the Penny Stamps lecture series, when artist Emory Douglas shared his work that featured more than 200 slides. One of them included a collage of side-by-side images of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler and the phrase “guilty of genocide” across their faces.

UM student Alexa Smith posted about it on her Facebook page.

"As a Wolverine, I sat through this lecture horrified at the hatred and intolerance being spewed on our campus," Smith wrote. "As a Jew who is proud of my people and my homeland, I sat through this lecture feeling targeted and smeared to be as evil as the man who perpetuated the Holocaust and systematically murdered six million Jews."

Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister responsible for education and diaspora affairs, wrote a letter to Schlissel on Monday that called on him to take action.

“The time has come for you as head of the University to make a strong stand against what has clearly become a trend of vitriolic hatred against the Jewish state on your campus,” Bennett wrote.

In his letter, Schlissel said that Douglas, who is not a UM faculty member, covered a wide range of subjects of his work, which examines oppression of people that Douglas views as being perpetuated by governmental powers.

"For our university to fulfill its role as a place for discovery, growth and increased understanding of the complex world we serve, speakers must be free to express their ideas even when they might be offensive," Schlissel wrote. "And all members of our community must be free to express their own ideas in response.

"It also is important to note that the ideas discussed in our teaching venues do not necessarily reflect the institutional values or position of the University of Michigan or its regents."

Regardless, Schlissel apologized as he explained that "Israel was not singled out here as imagery critical of many other political leaders was also a part of the talk. This was the point of the talk itself – that imagery can be a powerful component of movements aimed at social justice."

"Hitler and the genocide that he led, however, represent a horrific level of evil with few if any parallels in human history," Schlissel said. "We understand how these images are offensive, particularly in this case to Jewish students. We are sorry students were hurt by this experience."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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