After asking for a letter of recommendation from a professor in the University of Michigan’s American Culture department for a study abroad program in Israel, LSA junior Abigail Ingber found herself in the midst of controversy. On September 5th, University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold denied her request for a letter of recommendation on political grounds; in an email sent to Ingber he cited his opposition to the state of Israel and his “support of Palestinians living in Palestine” to justify withholding his recommendation. Importantly, he alluded to an “academic boycott” in “many university departments” against Israel. As a result, Professor Cheney-Lippold came under fire from Jewish student groups such as Club Z, a pro-Israel student organization according to their website. Alleging institutional bias against Israel and anti-semitism, critics called for Cheney-Lippold’s resignation.
In an email to the Michigan Daily, Cheney-Lippold backtracked on his previous reference to formal departmental boycotts against Israel, clarifying that his choice was one of personal conscience. He countered accusations of anti-semitism, clarifying his objection to Israel as one of human rights concerns. Additionally, he deflected criticisms of institutional bias by calling for a “larger campus-wide discussion” on controversial subjects such as Israel.
Cheney-Lippold’s retroactive support for “diversity of thought” on campus fits neatly into the University of Michigan’s go-to narrative of late: paying empty homage to open discourse and intellectual diversity while simultaneously bolstering the University’s powers to enforce ideology on campus. In this narrative, implementation of a bias response team designed to discipline offensive speech on campus is, in fact, a way to “welcome differing viewpoints” and “challeng[e] our way of thinking.” A lawsuit filed against U-M this summer by free speech organization Speech First attacked such policies on First Amendment grounds. The administration’s response was telling, dismissing the suit as “a false caricature” while once again referencing its supposed support for “voicing unpopular views and dissent” on campus.
Despite Michigan’s questionable track record on free speech issues, the case of Professor Cheney-Lippold deserves careful examination. I contend that Cheney-Lippold was well within his right to freedom of conscience in denying Abigail Ingber’s request. Forcing Cheney-Lippold to grant tacit support to a program with which he fundamentally disagrees would be an unacceptable breach of academic freedom. Moreover, firing Cheney-Lippold would set a dangerous precedent: professors must be able to work in an environment where their personal political views do not affect their employment.
Although Cheney-Lippold has the right to deny a student a letter of recommendation, his choice raises some important questions of academic activism and professorial responsibility. For one thing, it would be cause for concern if Cheney-Lippold did not merely misspeak when referring to a department-wide boycott of Israel. While a formal boycott would violate current LSA policy, it is not out of the realm of possibility that an informal boycott could exist amongst professors. Such a case would necessarily create a politically restricted academic atmosphere, entrenching specific political views into the American Culture department. Moreover, it would set a dangerous precedent: if the granting of study abroad letters of recommendation were based on the behavior of the program’s government, many other countries would qualify. Should we ban students from studying abroad in China or South Africa?
However, even if we believe Cheney-Lippold’s claim that his boycott is a purely personal one, we must consider whether or not he is setting a good example for other professors. I believe professors should try to impart knowledge, wisdom, and expertise in order to allow students to form their own opinions about the world around them. What they should not be doing is forcibly molding their students’ academic or career paths after their own political bent. Such measures represent a serious overreach of the University’s political influence.