This week, a professor at the University of Michigan rescinded his offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wished to study abroad in Israel.
In a screenshot of an e-mail that was shared thousands of times on social media, John Cheney-Lippold, a lecturer in the university’s American Culture department, explained his decision by writing: “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… For reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”
First and foremost, it is important to note that Cheney-Lippold is unequivocally wrong as to the status of such an academic boycott. The University of Michigan and its leadership have made statements in 2013 and 2017 citing their unambiguous opposition to any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education. “No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a position that departs from this long-held university position,” the university wrote in an additional clarifying statement released this week.
I am myself a recent alumnus of both the University of Michigan and Tel Aviv University’s overseas study program. If the student in question’s study abroad experience is anything like that of the majority of Michigan students I studied alongside in Israel, it will be decidedly apolitical. A lighter course load, a better climate, and some sweet nightclubs on the Tel Aviv port seemed to be the primary motivation for the majority of Wolverines who joined me in the Middle East – not politics.
That said, perhaps the student’s motivation for studying in Israel is exploring the diplomatic complexities of the region. Perhaps she is a fervent Zionist who is looking to strengthen her ties to the land of Israel by studying there. Or perhaps she is a vocal critic of the state, its policies, and its very existence. In either case, she will be welcomed openly in institutions of higher learning across Israel, where Arab enrollment in universities has grown by 78.5% over the past seven years and millions of taxpayer dollars are dedicated to raising that number even higher. Or perhaps she’s just going for the beaches and bars; I know I was.
The point is that it really doesn’t matter. The student clearly performed well enough in Cheney-Lippold’s American Culture course to secure a positive testament to her academic capabilities. He stated in his e-mail that he’d be happy to go through with his offer to write her a letter of recommendation for any other purpose. But because of Cheney-Lippold’s political qualms with the State of Israel, or perhaps those of his entire department, he reneged on his offer.
This is not an expression of Cheney-Lippold’s constitutionally protected right to free speech. Instead, it is a failure to perform his duties to his students as a university professor. If Cheney-Lippold is only interested in vouching for the academic credentials of students who embrace his precise geopolitical outlook, he is not qualified to work at a public institution of higher learning.
As a fierce defender of free expression, I will take that one step further. Cheney-Lippold is absolutely entitled to despise the State of Israel. He is entitled to teach his courses at the University of Michigan with that world view in mind – some professors already do. He is entitled to label Israel racist, genocidal, evil, or whatever he wishes to call it without fear of termination from his public employer. But when he allows his partisan aversions to prevent him from handing his students the praise he openly acknowledges they’ve earned, that is a terminable offense.
Cheney-Lippold’s actions are entirely worthy of the outrage they stirred up on social media. That same outrage would be in order if a professor had refused to sign a letter attesting to their student’s academic credentials because they sought to study abroad in China, Russia, Iran, or any American adversary sporting a loathsome record on human rights.
And yet, none of the aforementioned abysmal regimes ever seem to trigger the racially charged boycott hullabaloo that Israel, a Western-allied liberal democracy, regularly finds itself at the center of on college campuses. The callous and unhesitating fashion in which Cheney-Lippold delivers his discrimination is a testament to how deeply entrenched anti-Israel bigotry is within academia.
This incident comes as the University of Michigan is readying itself for a major legal battle over restricting what their students are entitled to say. Perhaps this episode will make things a bit clearer for professors at my alma mater and at campuses across the country.
Stop trying to restrict students. Stop trying to restrict what they say. Stop trying to restrict what they think. And for goodness sake, stop trying to restrict where they travel to study abroad.
The author is a very recent alumnus of the University of Michigan who works in political consulting and data analytics based out of New York City. Previous articles by him have appeared in The New York Times, the Times of Israel and the Michigan Daily.