Few schools offer study abroad program possibilities as extensive as those of the University of Michigan, which includes programs in more than 130 foreign countries, from Argentina to Zambia. To participate, students must complete an application, attend a series of meetings, maintain a minimum grade average, and obtain a short recommendation from a faculty member. It seemed straightforward to an undergraduate named Abigail Ingber, who requested a reference this semester from professor John Cheney-Lippold after taking one of his classes in the Department of American Culture. Although Cheney-Lippold initially agreed to provide the letter, he changed his mind when he realized that Ingber intended to study at Israel’s Tel Aviv University.
In an email, Cheney-Lippold explained that he adheres to the “academic boycott against Israel,” which precludes “writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.” He offered to “write other letters” for her but rescinded his earlier commitment “for reasons of these politics.”
Reactions were predictably mixed when Cheney-Lippold’s decision was revealed by the student newspaper, and later in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the national press. Supporters of the Israel boycott movement—known as BDS, for boycott, divestment, and sanctions—praised him for “following his conscience” in opposing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Others thought he had crossed a line by placing his political views ahead of obligations to his students. Cal State East Bay history professor Henry Reichman, writing in the Academe Blog of the American Association of University Professors, explained that Cheney-Lippold had violated ”professional ethics and responsibility.”
The university administration came down strongly on the student’s side. In a sharply worded statement, Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, informed Cheney-Lippold that his “behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated.” In the future, she warned, “You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”
Cole also imposed disciplinary measures. Cheney-Lippold was informed that he would not receive a merit raise for the next academic year and his scheduled sabbatical was canceled. Cheney-Lippold’s job is protected by tenure, but it was recently discovered than an untenured instructor has also refused to provide a reference for the Tel Aviv program. It remains to be seen how the university will address the second case.
Cheney-Lippold is unapologetic. “I can’t prevent a student from going to Israel,” he told the Washington Post. “But everybody has the right to withhold something, and I chose to exercise that right based on what the movement needs from me as a solidarity activist.”
Cheney-Lippold is well within his own rights to boycott Israel, but he is quite wrong to insist that solidarity with the BDS movement privileges him to withhold a reference from a qualified student. The Tel Aviv program is officially approved by the University of Michigan, and Cheney-Lippold is not entitled to impede a student’s access to it, just as he could not bar nonboycotting students from his courses, decline to grade their papers, or refuse to call on them in class. Every instructor has a professional responsibility to treat their students impartially, without regard to personal politics. In a letter to the campus community, President Mark Schlissel and provost Martin Filbert stated unambiguously that “faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support.” Withholding students’ recommendations would “violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission.”
To be sure, the current Israeli administration is no great friend of academic freedom, having recently revoked the visa of Lara Alqasem, an American who had been accepted for graduate study at Hebrew University, alleging that she was banned under a policy that keeps out supporters of the the BDS movement. Although Alqasem had once boycotted Israeli hummus while undergraduate president of the Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, her efforts to enroll at Hebrew University provide ample evidence that she does not support an academic boycott.
It would be nonsensical to invoke the Alqasem case as an objection to Michigan’s Israel study program. All eight research universities in Israel have vigorously protested her exclusion, and Hebrew University has joined her appeal. Even Cheney-Lippold would not advise boycotting the University of Michigan to protest President Trump’s brutal immigration and family-separation policies.
Even so, Cheney-Lippold’s discipline went too far for a first offense. A reprimand and warning would have been sufficient, and would have avoided raising difficult issues of academic freedom, First Amendment rights, and faculty governance. There is certain to be litigation, in which Cheney-Lippold will argue—as explained by one BDS advocate—that “participating in boycotts to advance progressive causes has a long and time-honored history in the United States.”
There may be a simpler solution. Instructors planning to withhold references should be required to announce their intentions in advance, naming the countries for which they will not provide recommendations and thus providing fair notice before students decide to enroll in their classes. The University of Michigan sponsors programs in authoritarian countries where minorities are oppressed and academic freedom is compromised or unknown—including China, Russia, and Hungary—and it will be revealing to see whether Israel is singled out for discriminatory treatment. Those who impose political limits on references should not be allowed to teach required courses, or courses for which there is only one available section.
In over four decades of law school teaching, I have written countless reference letters. Never once have I considered a student’s politics, or a potential employer’s. It’s not that I don’t care about my students’ careers; I freely give advice when requested. It’s just that they are entitled to references based on class performance, and their ultimate choices are none of my business.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus