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September 27, 2018 6:02 pm

Amid Anti-Israel Controversy, U. Michigan Faculty Urge Professors to Place Student ‘Merit’ Over Politics, but Concerns Persist

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The University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Jha4ceb/Wikimedia Commons.

An executive faculty body at the University of Michigan on Monday urged professors to base their letters of recommendations on “student’s merit,” after a professor refused to write one due to his support for academic boycotts of Israel.

The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) — a nine-member branch of the school’s faculty governing system — unanimously approved the statement in an apparent rebuke of John Cheney-Lippold, a digital studies professor who recently rescinded an offer to recommend a student after learning she sought to study abroad in Tel Aviv.

In affirming its opposition to such conduct, SACUA pointed to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), whose guidelines call on professors to “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students,” and to “encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students.”

Per these directives by the AAUP — which has in the past rejected academic boycotts, including of Israel — “faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide such a letter,” the SACUA resolution noted.

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Both the university and its president, Mark Schlissel, reiterated their condemnation of academic boycotts targeting Israel last week, while a school regent denounced Cheney-Lippold’s “antisemitic” behavior.

Yet Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — director of the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit that monitors antisemitism on college campuses — said U-M still hasn’t taken sufficient steps to ensure that students would not be academically impeded because of their professors’ personal ideologies.

She pointed out that the SACUA statement, for instance, does not clarify whether any disciplinary action will be taken against faculty members who choose to place politics above the needs of their students.

“Yes, it’s important to say we have certain norms and standards as academics,” but “to not play out the consequences of” violating such a statement “means that it’s irrelevant,” she told The Algemeiner on Thursday. “There’s no teeth to it.”

A joint letter sent to Schlissel on Friday from AMCHA and 57 other groups similarly urged the university to take stronger action against Cheney-Lippold, but received what Rossman-Benjamin called an “insufficient” response, which quoted a previous university statement expressing disapproval over the incident.

A U-M spokesperson added that while “the student has asked that we respect this as a private matter,” it was being treated “with the utmost seriousness.”

Rossman-Benjamin — whose group has launched a petition against academic boycotts — argued that the case extends far beyond Cheney-Lippold, who has repeatedly rejected accusations of unethical conduct and said last week that he received multiple death threats over the controversy.

“There are probably close to 2,000 faculty across the country who have endorsed some version of the academic boycott of Israel,” including at least two dozen at U-M, a number of whom serve in leadership roles within their departments, she pointed out.

While affirming the right of faculty to publicly express support for academic boycotts, she argued that “they cannot implement such boycotts without hurting their students, and that’s the issue.”

“If you seek to stop the flow of information and stop what they call the ‘normalization of Israel in the global academy,'” Rossman-Benjamin explained, citing the boycott official guidelines, “then anytime a student wants to study about or in Israel, you’re supposed to oppose that.”

“It’s just outrageous the extent to which a faculty member will actually engage in implementing their political agenda to the detriment of their own students,” she continued. “When they actually say, ‘I am going to implement the guidelines of this boycott, I’m going to work toward closing these academic exchange programs with Israel, I’m going to work toward sabotaging my colleagues’ collaborations with Israeli scholars, I’m going to work toward shutting down any kind of positive information or events about Israel because that would be normalizing Israel in the global academy’ — when faculty members say that, they need to be stopped.”

Rossman-Benjamin emphasized that professors’ “basic responsibility is to ensure the educational and academic welfare of their students,” and “if that’s not their first priority, they shouldn’t be teaching there, and the university needs to make that clear.”

“Until the public and university stakeholders are assured of that, I think that they should really protest and petition their university presidents — the ones where their students are, the ones they are paying taxes to,” she continued. “Right now, as far as I can tell, the University of Michigan has not made that commitment.”

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