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UM disciplines professor over Israel letter controversy

October 10, 2018
Citing BDS, professor refuses to write reference for student to study in Israel

The University of Michigan is disciplining the professor who sparked a global controversy after he refused to recommend a student for study in Israel because of his support for Palestinians, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News.

John Cheney-Lippold, a tenured American and digital studies associate professor, 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, according to the letter signed by Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of UM’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

He could also face additional discipline, up to and including dismissal, if a similar incident occurs in the future, Cole wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 3.

“Your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students,” according to Cole’s letter, which The News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. “This letter is a strong warning that your behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated.”

“In the future, a student’s merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation. You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”

UM’s actions come one month after Cheney-Lippold 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He told Ingber, a communications student, he would write the letter when she asked him in August, then rescinded his offer in September when he learned she wanted to study in Israel. He initially told Ingber that UM embraced an academic boycott of Israel, then later clarified that he personally stood in solidarity with Palestinians, who accuse Israel of human rights violations.

Cheney-Lippold’s discipline 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 aimed at protesting the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians.

According to the Washington Post, Jake Secker asked Lucy Peterson, a graduate student instructor, for a letter of recommendation to study in Israel. But she denied the request, citing a pledge to boycott Israeli institutions in support of Palestinians.

Cheney-Lippold’s action spawned an international outcry last month from the Jewish community, which prompted more than 60 organizations to write to UM President Mark Schlissel. Other organizations urged the university to take action against the instructor and even called for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate.

At the same time, the controversy also stirred the Palestinian community, who hailed Cheney-Lippold’s stance.

Besides outlining disciplinary action, Cole’s letter chided Cheney-Lippold for writing two letters previously for students who wanted to study in Israel because he didn’t have tenure. Cole also criticized him for using class time in two courses he is teaching to discuss his views on the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement and his decision to not write a letter for Ingber.

“You did not honor your responsibility to teach your students the material on your syllabus related to your field of expertise,” Cole wrote. “Although this material was discussed in only one session, an entire class period represents a significant portion of your total contact hours with students over the semester. This use of class time to discuss your persona] opinions was a misuse of your role as a faculty member.”

The letter also said Cheney-Lippold violated Ingber’s privacy in some statements he made to media outlets and “cast a national spotlight” on her.

“Your actions throughout this entire series of events has harmed your students and has caused significant disruption to the Department of American Culture. the College, and the University as a whole,” Cole wrote.

The interim dean also said Cheney-Lippold wrongly portrayed the Israeli boycott as sanctioned by UM. “In fact, the University formally and publicly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” Cole wrote.

Read More: The Detroit News

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