Free Speech on Campus graphic

Two University of Michigan instructors decline to support students’ study in Israel – August, October 2018

Ann Arbor, MI   

In late August 2018, a junior in the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LSA) asked one of her professors for a recommendation to study abroad at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The professor explained that he had pledged to participate in an academic boycott against Israeli institutions. In October 2018, a separate but similar incident occurred when a student asked a teaching assistant for a recommendation letter so that he, too, could study in Tel Aviv; she offered a similar explanation.

Key Players

John Cheney-Lippold is a professor in the American Culture Department at the University of Michigan. His expertise lies in exploring the relationship among digital media, identity, and privacy.

Abigail Ingber is a junior in University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts. She is the student who asked Cheney-Lippold for a recommendation letter to support her application to study abroad at the University of Tel Aviv.

Jake Secker, also a junior, is an economics student at the University of Michigan. In October 2018, he asked a teaching assistant for a similar letter.

Club Z is a California-based Zionist group that advocates for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lucy Peterson is a graduate student of political theory at the University of Michigan, and serves as a teaching assistant for courses in political science.

Further Details

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led initiative, inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, that urges the end of Israeli occupation of Arab lands, full recognition of the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protection of the rights of Palestinian refugees.  

Cheney-Lippold wrote Ingber in an email, “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine, according to The Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper. “This boycott includes (not) writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

On September 16, Club Z helped break this story by posting a photo (obtained from another Michigan professor) of Cheney-Lippold’s email on its Facebook page. It called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the incident further, but received mixed reactions online, with some supporting Cheney-Lippold. LSA senior Kendall Coden, chair of Michigan Hillel, the Jewish religious and cultural society on campus, openly disagreed with the professor’s message. “Students should not be denied the opportunity to experience another culture as a result of a professor’s political viewpoints,” Coden told The Michigan Daily.

In a September interview with the Washington Post, Cheney-Lippold addressed a mistake he acknowledged making in his initial email to Ingber. “While many of the people in my faculty support me, the department itself doesn’t have a position on BDS, nor does any other department at the University of Michigan,” he said. A university spokesperson took this one step further in a September 20 statement. “The University of Michigan strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” it reads. “It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students.”

But Cheney-Lippold, who said he had received death threats by phone and email, Insisted his decision to withhold the recommendation letter was not intended to be a personal attack on Ingber. Rather, he told the Post, it was a way to demonstrate support of Palestinians. “Following requests from Palestinian and Jewish activists, I find the boycott against Israeli state institutions to be a very useful way to put pressure where I can as an academic.” Specifically, he felt the Palestinian situation had become acute in July 2018 with Israel’s passage of a nation-state law, which declared the country a national homeland for the Jewish people.

He also suggested the backlash he had received stemmed from the misconception that professors owe students certain services, including recommendation letters, given the students’ monetary investment in the university through tuition. When students are viewed as consumers to be catered to, he said, then professors are expected to do whatever it takes, within reason, to accommodate them, even if it means, in this case, sacrificing their own Free Speech).

A similar case unfolded at Michigan in early October 2018. Jake Secker, whose father is Israeli and who had been taken on multiple trips to Israel as a child, emailed teaching assistant Lucy Peterson about a recommendation for a study-abroad opportunity the following semester. Peterson, who specializes in political theory, initially agreed to write the letter. But upon learning that Secker also hoped to study at Tel Aviv University, Peterson wrote him saying, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf…Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”

Secker’s experience was quickly reported to Michigan’s board of regents and the president’s office. Soon LSA’s dean for the social sciences offered to write the recommendation letter and  “any letter Jake wanted.” herself. Secker and his father thought the university was trying to sweep the issue under rug, however, with the father telling the Post, “I don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue. The university has a fiduciary responsibility to students.”

Secker told the Post that although he appreciated the school’s gesture and accepted the associate dean’s offer, words alone weren’t enough. He wanted policy changes. The previous year, the board of regents had declined to form a committee to investigate divesting the university’s endowment from companies doing business with Israel, after the student government passed a resolution supporting such a move. But, according to Secker, if the university does not take further action to protect students from professors’ political biases, other crises could ensue.


Cheney-Lippold disciplined

On October 9, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the University of Michigan had told Cheney-Lippold, who is tenured, that he would not receive a merit raise this academic year; that, as a result of his actions, he would not be permitted to take a planned sabbatical in January; and that he would not be allowed to take sabbaticals for the next two years. “To be clear, there are no University departments participating in the boycott and in fact, the University formally and publicly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,”  wrote Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of LSA, in an Oct. 3 letter.

Student questions merits of professors’ decision to boycott Israel

Reed Rosenbacher, a student at the University of Michigan, questioned Cheney-Lippold’s decision to refuse to write a recommendation letter on the grounds that the professor failed to consider the broader implications of his actions. “What frustrates me is Cheney-Lippold did not place his decision within a larger framework for understanding which countries have acceptable enough politics and which ones do not,” Rosenbacher wrote in a column in September 2018 in The Michigan Daily. Rosenbacher questioned the grounds for deciding when to boycott a country. “Would Cheney-Lippold deny a student’s request to study in China?” the student wrote. “Why don’t we hear professors reject other nations on the basis of ethical premises?” Rosenbacher continued, referring to countries such as England, Germany, and France, which are popular study abroad destinations for students and have histories of colonialism, the student wrote.

Peterson writes op-ed explaining her decision

On October 16, Lucy Peterson wrote an opinion piece for The Michigan Daily. In it, she said, “By choosing not to contribute to Israel’s discriminatory practices, I am defending equality and justice for Palestinians…My action attests to my ongoing engagement with the theory and practice of social justice pedagogy as well as my concern for the injustices suffered by Palestinians.” She also argued that, although she is Jewish, “Supporting freedom, justice and equality for all is a Jewish value, and Jews everywhere should be free to criticize Israel when its policies violate these values.”

Both students attend program in Israel

Both University of Michigan students  attended the study-abroad program in Israel, according to The Michigan Daily, despite their instructors’ disapproval.

External References

A Michigan professor supported a student’s study abroad application — until he realized Israel was her destination, The Washington Post

American Studies Association

Backing the Israel Boycott, Inside Higher Ed

Intro a BDS

Reed Rosenbacher: Boycott Israel? Why not boycott China and Western Europe?, The Michigan Daily  

“U” comments on professor refusal to recommend study in Israel, The Michigan Daily  

Prepared by Erin Doherty ‘20

Uploaded to tracker: January 26, 2019