Issues: Academic Freedom, Free Speech, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions
University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold and graduate student Lucy Peterson were investigated after declining to write recommendation letters for study abroad programs in Israel because they support the academic boycott for Palestinian rights.
In October 2018, University of Michigan tenured professor John Cheney-Lippold was sanctioned by the school with loss of his earned sabbatical for two years and no merit increase for the academic year after he told a student he would be unable to write her a recommendation letter for a study abroad program in Israel because he supports the academic boycott for Palestinian rights. The University also warned “further conduct of this nature is subject to additional discipline.”
Lucy Peterson, a doctoral student in Political Science, similarly declined to write a recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad at an Israeli academic institution. In early October, she was questioned by the administration. Three weeks later – after an intense campaign of support on behalf of Cheney-Lippold and Peterson – the administration informed Peterson that there was no contractual obligation to write letters and she would not be punished.
Professor Cheney-Lippold said about his decision to boycott, “I wouldn’t cross a union picket line and I can’t cross this one. I support the Palestinian boycott call because I am appalled at Israel’s continuing violation of Palestinian rights, and our government’s support for those violations. If a student had wanted to do a study abroad at an institution in Apartheid South Africa, I would have declined to write a letter for her as well.”
Lucy Peterson wrote about her decision: “Regardless of whether or not the University changes its relationship to Israel/Palestine, at the very least, individuals who hold positions within the university must nevertheless be free to engage in critical discourse and disagreement about the university’s purpose.”
The backlash against the professor and graduate student came after right-wing anti-Palestinian groups launched a campaign to pressure the university itno punishing them. After Cheney-Lippold declined the letter in an email to a student, Club Z, a Zionist organization, posted the email on Facebook. Islamophobe ideologue Pamela Geller and right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America called for the professor to be dismissed. The story spread across conservative sites such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller and was soon picked up by other sites such as CBS and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Soon after, Cheney-Lippold received over 500 emails, including messages calling for him to be killed.
“It’s not uncommon for professors to decline to write recommendations for ethical, political or academic reasons,” said Radhika Sainath, Senior Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal, who initially advised Cheney-Lippold and Peterson.“A professor is not obligated to write a recommendation letter for organizations complicit in unlawful or unethical activity – whether it’s the NRA, President Trump or Israel institutions complicit in violations of Palestinian rights.”
- September 5, 2018 Professor Cheney-Lippold informs student that for political and ethical reasons he could not write her a recommendation for a study abroad program in Israel due to his support for the boycott for Palestinian rights. Cheney-Lippold offers to write letters for other programs.
- September 16, 2018 Club Z, a Zionist organization, posts the email on Facebook. The story spreads on right-wing media, and Cheney-Lippold receives death threats.
- October 1, 2018 Graduate student Lucy Peterson declines to write a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program in Israel.
- October 3, 2018 Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of College of Literature, Science and the Arts, sends Cheney-Lippold a letter sanctioning him with loss of his earned sabbatical for two years, no merit increase for the academic year, and warning “further conduct of this nature is subject to additional discipline.”
- October 4, 2018 Rosario Ceballo, Associate Dean of Social Sciences, calls Lucy Peterson into a meeting with her and the chair of Peterson’s department.
- October 9, 2018 The university president and provost issue a public statement stating: “Withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views does not meet our university’s expectations for supporting the academic aspirations of our students. Conduct that violates this expectation and harms students will not be tolerated and will be addressed with serious consequences.” Associate Dean Ceballo meets with Lucy Peterson and questions her about her actions.
- October 29, 2018 The university informed Peterson it would not be punishing her for refusing to write a letter of recommendation.
Letters and Statements
Petitions and Action Alerts
UM faculty senate says recommendations should be choice of faculty, Martin Slagter, MLive.com (October 23, 2018)
Professor Was Improperly Punished for Israel Boycott Actions, Says Academic Group Cited in Punishment, Zaid Jilani, The Intercept (October 18, 2018)
Listen: Michigan professor punished for supporting boycott, Nora Barrows-Friedman, Electronic Intifada (October 16, 2018)
Op-Ed: Why I declined to write a letter of recommendation, Lucy Peterson, The Michigan Daily (October 16, 2018)
A professor withheld a recommendation letter for a student heading to Israel. Here’s why I’m fine with it., David Palumbo-Liu, Washington Post (October 13, 2018)
Op-Ed: This university will not silence us, UM Alumni, The Michigan Daily (October 11, 2018)
University of Michigan punishes professor for boycotting Israel, Ali Harb, Middle East Eye (October 11, 2018)
Michigan U punishes prof. for denying recommendation to Israel-bound student, Michael Bachner, Times of Israel (October 10, 2018)
UM disciplines prof over Israel letter controversy, Kim Kozlowski, The Detroit News (October 9, 2018)
Michigan professor stands firm despite Israel lobby attacks, Nora Barrows-Friedman, Electronic Intifada (September 27, 2018)
The ethics of study abroad in Israel, David Lloyd, Mondoweiss (September 20, 2018)
Lawyer: UM prof in Israel letter flap gets death threats, Kim Kozlowski, The Detroit News (September 19, 2018)