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October 16, 2018 8:45 am

The University of Michigan Has a Big Problem

avatar by Kenneth H. Ryesky

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The University of Michigan. Photo: Dante Chinni.

News from Michigan tends to reach me here in Israel given my personal and professional ties to the state. Having taught at Queens College CUNY and at Yeshiva University, and as a lawyer whose undergraduate major and MBA concentration were in Organizations & Management, I now critique the situation at the University of Michigan from a legal and managerial perspective.

Professor John Cheney-Lippold recently reneged on his offer to write a recommendation letter for his student, Abigail Ingber, because and only because the institution to which Ingber sought admittance was an Israeli school. In his email to Ingber, Cheney-Lippold falsely claimed that his department has a policy of boycotting Israeli academic institutions, a claim he subsequently backtracked upon with highly questionable credibility, since official statements of the University’s position against academic boycotts were publicly issued in 2013 and 2017.

I emailed Cheney-Lippold’s department chair requesting a copy of that alleged policy; or, if the policy had not been put in writing, the minutes of the departmental meetings when the policy was instituted; or, if no such policy existed, to so confirm. The Chair courteously responded to me, and confirmed that her department has no such policy. The University’s Freedom of Information Officer subsequently sent me an official letter, which stated that “there are no departments within the University of Michigan with such a policy.”

These denials are quite credible, given the propensity of department chairs to meticulously ensure that their departments conform to general university policy. There nevertheless remains the slight possibility that one or more university departments have effectively instituted informal BDS support policies; if so, it would only take one unhappy camper within the department to expose the same, thereby profoundly undermining the University’s posture in a litigation situation. Sound risk management would dictate that the university obtain confirmation from all its departments that they have no formal or informal academic boycott policies — or else come clean and reverse any such policies forthwith.

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The University has disciplined Cheney-Lippold for his various violations of university policies in the matter, the most significant measure being a warning that future similar actions on his part would subject him to even harsher sanctions. Cheney-Lippold has reportedly lamented that the Ingber affair controversy arose because he was honest about how his political commitments shape his academic responsibilities, but surely an employer who says “sorry boy, we don’t hire black people here” to an African-American job applicant would not be heard to assert a similar “victim of my own honesty” argument.

Now, a new and nearly identical case involving a different instructor and student has arisen at the University of Michigan. Graduate Student Instructor Lucy Peterson has reneged, specifically upon her personal support for BDS, on an offer to write a recommendation letter for student Jake Secker, who seeks admission to a Tel Aviv University program.

Ms. Peterson has been called in by her superiors for discussions. I, as one whose zealous advocacy for the rights of non-tenured faculty is a matter of official public record, find it quite reassuring that the university is according Ms. Peterson due process. Management principles dictate that organizational impasses and dysfunctions be resolved at the lowest echelons and level of formality practicable. But the Cheney-Lippold affair has raised the bottom floor for the university to deal with Ms. Peterson’s transgressions.

Ideally, the best resolution to Lucy Peterson’s violation of university policy would be her rehabilitation so that she might attain a successful career. But because the news of her misdeed comes at the heels of the Cheney-Lippold affair, serious questions linger as to Ms. Peterson’s corrigibility.

It should be noted that “rehabilitation” does not necessarily require Ms. Peterson to abandon or change her political views. It does require her to respect the rights of the students she has been entrusted to teach, and it does require that she draw the proper line to separate her purely personal sentiments from her professional obligations, much as a physician must deliver skillful medical care without regard to the patient’s political, social, or religious orientation, and much as lawyers must zealously represent clients whose attitudes and objectives the lawyers do not personally endorse.

Now at stake is the ability of the University’s administration to effectively control education and civil order on its campuses, if not the university’s continued operation. Its failure to definitively resolve the problems caused by Ms. Peterson and Prof. Cheney-Lippold can potentially lead to organizational and physical chaos. By effectively asserting its authority and insisting upon upholding its standards, however, the University administration can yet excel in its mission to serve the world through “preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving, and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”

Kenneth H. Ryesky is an attorney and writer currently based in Israel. He taught for more than twenty years at Queens College CUNY and at Yeshiva University.

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