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January 23, 2019 8:24 am

University of Michigan and Pitzer College Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

avatar by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin / JNS.org

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The Grove House and the Rodman Arboretum at Pitzer College. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – Opponents of an academic boycott of Israel owe John Cheney-Lippold and Daniel Segal a debt of gratitude.

Cheney-Lippold is the University of Michigan professor who agreed to write a letter of recommendation for one of his students last fall — and then reneged after realizing it was for study in Israel. Segal, a professor at Pitzer College and a major proponent of the academic boycott of Israel, convinced his fellow Pitzer faculty members to shut down the school’s study-abroad program at the University of Haifa only months later.

These professors’ reprehensible behavior has brought much-needed attention to how implementation of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) — long-advertised as aimed at academic institutions in Israel — in reality directly threatens the academic freedom and rights of students on North American campuses.

Alarmingly, Cheney-Lippold and Segal are just the tip of the iceberg.

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First, their behavior is not unique. They are just two of a growing number of faculty members who choose to privilege their own personal politics above the academic welfare of their students. In fact, shortly after the Cheney-Lippold incident became public, another Michigan student reported that his graduate student instructor had similarly refused a letter of recommendation for a study-abroad program in Israel.

Ten US professors — all outspoken advocates of PACBI’s campus agenda — have also pledged their willingness to refuse letters of recommendation for students wanting to study in Israel, and encouraged others to do the same. A petition titled “Stand With John Cheney-Lippold” states, “We, too, are supporters of the BDS Movement, and would not provide a letter of support for a student seeking to study in an Israeli University.” It has been signed by 1,000 individuals.

Second, following the PACBI guidelines to a tee, attempts have also been made to sabotage student-organized programs and faculty collaborations related to Israel, thereby directly suppressing student and faculty free speech and freedom of assembly. For example, faculty boycotters at the University of California, Santa Cruz tried to cancel a student-organized event titled “Queer in Israel” that was to take place at the school’s LGBTQ Center. And faculty boycotters at Cornell University attempted to block a partnership between Cornell and Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to create a joint institute of applied sciences that would benefit Cornell faculty and students.

Third, some academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences and humanities departments, have become dominated by academic boycotters, creating a professional climate that condones if not encourages faculty members to support the boycott, despite its harmful effects on students. A recent study found that departments of Middle East, ethnic, and gender studies with affiliated faculty who support academic BDS are five to 12 times more likely to sponsor Israel-related events with BDS-promoting speakers than similar departments with no academic boycotters.

As blatantly antithetical to the mission and values of academia an academic boycott of Israel may be, individual faculty members do have the right to express their public support for it. But when faculty like Cheney-Lippold and Segal go beyond merely expressing support, and actually threaten a student’s right to participate in university-approved educational programs, they are not only trampling on the academic rights of their students, but undermining the academic integrity of the entire university.

This is a serious and growing problem that university leaders must face before it spirals out of control.

While hundreds of university presidents have condemned academic boycotts, including the heads of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Brown, and Dartmouth, thus far only a handful of university leaders have recognized the importance of opposing attempts to implement an academic boycott on their own campuses:

  • Following an enormous public outcry over Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel issued a strong statement acknowledging that “such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission.”
  • In a speech addressing the faculty vote to shut down his school’s study-abroad program in Israel, Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver forthrightly stated: “To deny Pitzer students who want to study at Haifa University the opportunity to study abroad and to enter into dialogue and promote intercultural understanding at the altar of political considerations is anathema to Pitzer’s core values.”
  • Last month, all 10 University of California Chancellors issued a statement declaring that the academic boycott of Israel “poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campuses, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.”

University leaders across the country must follow suit by loudly condemning faculty at their own schools who would implement an academic boycott of Israel that deprives students of educational opportunities and academic rights in the name of personal politics. State and federal legislators should also consider withholding taxpayer monies from schools that allow faculty to implement a boycott that directly hurts students, undermines their school’s academic mission, and erodes public trust in our nation’s institutions of higher education.

Rossman-Benjamin is the founder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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