University of Michigan Investigates Two Teachers for Academic Boycott

Issues: Academic Freedom, Free Speech, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions

An    action alert    from Jewish Voice for Peace.

An action alert from Jewish Voice for Peace.

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.”

History >>

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.

Decisions >>

Sanction Letter to John Cheney-Lippold

Letters and Statements >>

American Association of University Professors

American Political Science Association

Boycott from Within

City University of New York Professor Corey Robin

Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke

Educators in support of John Cheney-Lippold

Middle East Studies Association

NYU American Association of University Professors

Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (1)

Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (2)

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole

University of Michigan Senate Advisory Committee of University Affairs

US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

Young Democratic Socialists of America

Petitions and Action Alerts >>

American Muslims for Palestine

Jewish Voice for Peace

US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (1)

US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (2)

US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

UM Graduate Students

UM Alumni

Media >>

UM faculty senate says recommendations should be choice of faculty, Martin Slagter, (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)

UC Student Union Boycott Challenged

University of California: Graduate Student Union’s Right to Boycott Challenged 

In December 2014, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 – a union representing 13,000 graduate student instructors at the University of California - voted to support the movement for boycott and divestment of Israel, becoming the first major labor union in the U.S. to support BDS. The previous July, the union leadership had passed a general statement in support of BDS. The final statewide membership vote favored a resolution that called on the UC to divest, and called on the International UAW to divest. 65% of voting members supported the resolution for divestment. The resolution also asked members to take an individual anonymous pledge to support the academic boycott, for which 52% of voting members (1136 individual graduate students) voted yes. The vote triggered significant backlash and legal threats.

Political opponents raised false accusations that the resolution would constitute unlawful discrimination and would violate university policy. An opposition website argued, “BDS is potentially illegal,” and claimed the union would be subject to a lawsuit, citing legal threats made against the American Studies Association. The same opposition group circulated a letter to the President of the International UAW falsely claiming that the union’s support for the academic boycott “bars people with Israeli citizenship from joining the union.” These accusations mischaracterized the resolution, ignored the union’s emphatic statement of opposition to all forms of discrimination, and ignored the union’s clear explanation that the boycott targets institutions, not individuals. In response to legal threats, Palestine Legal explained that the union was clearly engaging in First Amendment protected speech and that the boycott did not call for discriminatory action against individuals.

Shortly before the vote, the American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter threatening legal action to the local union leadership, the UAW international, and the University of California alleging the same violations of discrimination law, union law, and university policy. The letter threatened union leaders with “individual liability.” Palestine Legal again confirmed that these claims were baseless because there was no unlawful action, no possibility of individual liability, and the First Amendment protects the union’s action.

In addition to the direct threats against the union and union officials, off-campus organizations like the AMCHA Initiative and the Brandeis Center targeted the statewide UC administration with demands that the university prohibit graduate-student instructors from discussing BDS in the classroom. The AMCHA Initiative generated “over a hundred emails,” according to a letter from the University of California, complaining that the union's activity supporting boycott and divestment violates UC policy on what can be discussed in the classroom.

The university responded to external pressure in September 2014, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, by forwarding AMCHA’s letter to the chancellors of all nine UC campuses. The message from the UC President’s office was vague – it listed policies that govern the conduct of graduate student instructors in the classroom. But given that the university forwarded AMCHA’s call for censorship, the university’s letter could be reasonably construed as a direction to chancellors to monitor and suppress discussion of boycott and divestment. At least one graduate student reported changing course material to avoid relevant content related to Israel/Palestine due to ambiguity over whether the university would prohibit teaching the subject.

Palestine Legal continues to advocate within the UC system to mitigate the chilling effect of attacks on Palestine advocacy and to protect the rights of faculty and students to engage in critical discussion.

Relevant Documents