University of Michigan president publishes letter addressing anti-Israel sentiment on campus

Schlissel addresses recommendation letter refusals, controversial lecture

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Photo: Flickr

ANN ARBOR - University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel published a letter Tuesday addressing three recent incidents on campus that have brought to light questions about the university's policies surrounding anti-Semitism.

The first incident, which made national headlines, involved American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold. He rescinded a letter of recommendation to a student after he learned she was applying to a study abroad program in Israel. 

"Many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine  ... I should have let you know earlier and for that I apologize," Cheney-Lippold wrote to the student via email. "But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter."   

His statements reference the   Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as BDS, which calls for a worldwide boycott of Israeli companies and cultural and academic  institutions.      

University of Michigan associate professor John Cheney-Lippold speaks at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2015 (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

The university has responded by refusing a pay increase to the associate professor for the 2018-19 academic year, and by freezing his sabbatical eligibility until 2020, delaying his scheduled sabbatical by one year.

"In the future, a student's merit should be your primary guide for determining how and whether to provide a letter of recommendation. You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs," wrote Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole of the UM College of Literature, Sciences & Arts in a letter dated Oct. 3.

A second such case occurred last week, in which a teaching assistant named Lucy Peterson rescinded her offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student hoping to study at Tel Aviv University.

In a response similar to Cheney-Lippold's, Peterson wrote: "I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf. Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine."

The University of Michigan opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and pressure from students, organizations and even members of the Israeli parliament has been mounting on U-M to take action.

In his recent letter, Schlissel wrote:

"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. Such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission."

Schlissel explained that the university has apologized to the students and is "working to ensure they have everything they need to complete their applications."

Schlissel announced that a panel has been created, "to examine the intersection between political thought/ideology and faculty members’ responsibilities to students." 

James Duderstadt, president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering, will chair the panel of distinguished faculty members. They will aim to examine university policy, compare it to policies of peer institutions, gather input from university stakeholders and clarify or create a new policy with regard to faculty members' personal views and how they may affect responsibilities to their students.

The third incident to arise in a month was during a mandatory lecture on Oct. 4 as part of the Stamps School of Art & Design Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

Controversial artist and former Black Panther Emory Douglas compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler, with a slide showing both men's faces with the words "Guilty of Genocide" written across them.

Jewish student Alexa Smith shared an image of the slide on Facebook, saying, "Yesterday I was forced to sit through an overtly anti-Semitic lecture," she wrote, adding: "In what world is it ok for a mandatory course to host a speaker who compares Adolf Hitler to the Prime Minister of Israel?"

In response, Rick Fitzgerald, assistant vice president for public affairs, issued this statement: "Douglas covered a wide array of subject matter within the overarching context of his work, which looks at the oppression of people across the globe by governmental powers ... The Stamps program is intentionally provocative and we are clear with our students about this. The school does not control or censor what speakers present."

Schlissel addressed the lecture in his letter, saying:

"For our university to fulfill its role as a place for discovery, growth and increased understanding of the complex world we serve, speakers must be free to express their ideas even when they might be offensive ... The image that offended a number of our students was on a single slide among nearly 200 other slides that were presented over the course of an hour.

"Hitler and the genocide that he led, however, represent a horrific level of evil with few if any parallels in human history. We understand how these images are offensive, particularly in this case to Jewish students. We are sorry students were hurt by this experience."

For her part, Smith has thanked what she calls an "outpouring of support" following her post.

In an update, she said that she and fellow Jewish students met with Gunalan Nadarajan, the dean of Stamps, and Dr. Robert Sellers, the university’s chief diversity officer, to urge the university of adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.

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