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October 19, 2018 5:03 pm

Two Academic Groups Urge University of Michigan to Reconsider Sanctions Against Professors Who Won’t Recommend Students for Israel Study

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A flag at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Photo: Corey Seeman.

Two leading academic groups called on the University of Michigan to withhold from sanctioning instructors who refused to write letters of recommendation for students who sought to study in Tel Aviv.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Political Science Association (APSA) weighed in on the controversy stemming from a decision by tenured U-M professor John Cheney-Lippold, as well as graduate student instructor Lucy Peterson, to deny recommendations to students in compliance with the Palestinian-led boycott campaign against Israel.

Their response comes shortly after U-M Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole chided Cheney-Lippold in private correspondence for denying an academic opportunity to a student “because of your personal views,” and then “using the student’s request as a political platform to gain an audience for your own opinions, both in the media and in the classroom.”

Cole said the professor would be barred from receiving a raise during the current academic year or taking a sabbatical until the fall of 2020, and may be subject to additional sanctions — including the initiation of dismissal proceedings — for future violations.

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Yet in a letter sent to U-M president Mark Schlissel on Tuesday, the AAUP — which counts some 45,000 members, and seeks to protect academic freedom — argued that “the imposition of severe sanctions” were not “preceded by an informal inquiry conducted by a duly constituted faculty committee,” per the group’s standards.

The association further claimed that Cole’s letter — which faulted Cheney-Lippold for using class time to explain his decision not to write the recommendation, as well as his opinion on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel — “appears to misrepresent” AAUP’s position against professors who “persistently” introduce material unrelated to their subject matter in class.

“Reports conflict regarding the amount of time actually dedicated to this discussion in each session, with Professor Cheney-Lippold contending that he spent fifteen minutes on the topic and individual students reporting that he dedicated the entire class period to the discussion,” the letter noted, “thus highlighting the need for an appropriate proceeding in which to establish the facts that might justify the sanctions.”

“If the facts as we have recounted them are essentially accurate,” the AAUP continued, “we urge that the sanctions imposed on Professor Cheney-Lippold be rescinded pending affordance of proceedings consistent with the above-cited procedural standards.”

In a letter sent on Monday, APSA — which counts some 12,000 professors and political science students worldwide among its ranks — similarly expressed concern about the university’s stance. While backing U-M’s decision to convene a panel that would clarify the overarching obligations that instructors have to their students, regardless of personal political beliefs, the group urged the university to “prioritize the principles of academic freedom.”

“Statements prior to this Fall did not specify that instructors would be sanctioned for supporting the BDS movement, or that sanctions could be exercised for declining to write letters of recommendation,” the APSA wrote. “Although the university certainly may expect that instructors will make reasonable efforts to aid students, strong sanctions without clear prior notice raise questions of procedural fairness.”

The association also warned that Peterson, on whose behalf it was writing, is “an early career graduate student” who may be subject to “outsize sanctions,” and warned that the university’s actions “give at least the appearance of pressuring instructors to conform to the university’s position on … a matter of political belief.”

A representative for the university declined to comment on the letters, saying it “will respond directly to those organizations.”

U-M’s announced sanctions against Cheney-Lippold were applauded last week by some Zionist campus groups and national Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, which praised its “strong guidelines … [and] condemnation of actions that would unfairly impact students who wish to study in Israel.”

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — who heads the AMCHA Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog that led nearly 60 organizations in calling for disciplinary action against Cheney-Lippold — credited U-M for recognizing “the serious harm that an academic boycott’s implementation causes its own students.”

“U-M has shown leadership in curbing this discriminatory behavior and stood up for all of its students’ civil and academic rights with this precedent,” she said in a statement shared with The Algemeiner. “We fully commend U-M for the steps taken thus far to discipline Cheney-Lippold, and for establishing a panel that we hope will lead to a clear and comprehensive policy on professors who attempt to use their professional positions to push a personal, political agenda.”

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