UM faces more pressure over Israel letter flap

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Flint — The University of Michigan continues to hear from residents, faculty and organizations about the denial of recommendation letters for students wanting to study in Israel.

The UM Board of Regents met Thursday, and didn't formally address the issue. But some Metro Detroit residents traveled to Flint to speak to the board during the public comment period.

Among them was Ed Kohl, a West Bloomfield resident, who told the regents he was encouraged by the recent disciplining of associate professor John Cheney-Lippold, who cited an academic boycott of Israel and support for Palestinians for his refusal to write a recommendation letter for a student.

John Cheney-Lippold, University of Michigan associate professor

Kohl also said he was pleased by the formation of a university panel to examine UM's policy to ensure that the political views of employees do not interfere with their responsibilities to students.

"Jew hatred is the oldest bigotry," Kohl told the regents. "Recent events show it remains with us at the University of Michigan ... Our army of taxpayers and voters is paying attention. We ask that the regents join our efforts to eradicate bigotry at this great public university."

Eugene Greenstein, past president of the Zionist Organization of America, Michigan region, also spoke to the regents, outlining past and present incidents at UM when students relayed anti-Semitism in the classroom. 

"President (Mark) Schlissel, your stated diversity goal is to have 'an equitable and inclusive environment for everyone,'" Greenstein said, adding that the university's diversity efforts have not specifically noted the inclusion of Jewish students and the panel should have a mandate to investigate whether anti-Semitism is a problem in classrooms.

"The university has an obligation to fix this problem .... as a matter of, to use President Schlissel's word, equity," said Greenstein, a Farmington Hills resident.

The issue, which has attracted global attention from activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, comes as Lara Alqasem — a 22-year-old Florida student who planned to study at Hebrew University of Jerusalem — was released from a detention of more than two weeks at the Israeli international airport because of suspicions that she supports the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.

The UM controversy began last month when Cheney-Lippold, a tenured American and digital studies associate professor, withdrew his offer to write a recommendation letter for Abigail Ingber when he learned that she was going to study at the University of Tel Aviv.

Cheney-Lippold told Ingber, an undergraduate, that he couldn't write the letter because he supported a ban on Israeli institutions because of human rights violations against Palestinians.

Soon after, the university disciplined Cheney-Lippold by taking away his upcoming sabbatical and 2018-19 merit raise.

Last week, Schlissel announced the formation of a board of faculty members to examine university policy to ensure that employees' political views do not interfere with their responsibilities to students. In addition, news emerged that a graduate student instructor also had denied a request to recommend a student for study in Israel.

Earlier this week, the Michigan Daily, UM's student newspaper, published an op-ed by Lucy Peterson, a political science graduate student instructor, on why she decided not to write a recommendation letter for a student.

"Israel routinely discriminates against and bans Palestinian-Americans, which means many of my Palestinian students would be denied study abroad opportunities available to other students," wrote Peterson, who identified herself as Jewish.

Also this week, the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Schlissel, urging him rescind the sanctions imposed on Cheney-Lippold.

According to the letter, signed by Hans-Joerg Tiede, AAUP associate secretary, the organization's interested was rooted in its commitment to academic freedom and tenure. 

He said charges leading to sanctions should come after an informal inquiry by faculty committee charged with decided whether proceedings for imposing discipline should commence.

"Following such a determination, AAUP-supported standards require an administration to demonstrate adequate cause for imposing a severe sanction in a hearing of record before an elected faculty body," Tiede wrote. "It does not appear that the procedures followed ... prior to imposing the sanctions on Professor Cheney-Lippold were consistent with these Association-supported standards.

"If the facts as we have recounted them are essentially accurate," Tiede wrote, "we urge that the sanctions imposed on Professor Cheney-Lippold be rescinded pending affordance of proceedings consistent with the above-cited procedural standards."

Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at UM, and the proprietor of the Informed Comment website, also weighed in this week, saying he wouldn't write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study in Israel.

"I understand the desire to uphold students’ right of conscience and to treat them fairly," Cole wrote. "But I think this decision by my College was wrong-headed in going too far toward disregarding faculty rights of conscience and I would be surprised (and depressed) if it stands in the medium term."