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University of Michigan faces mounting criticism over BDS controversy

Support grows for professor punished by university for refusing to write recommendation letter for student planning to study in Israel
Students held rally on Tuesday to show solidarity with professor John Cheney-Lippold (MEE/Ali Harb)

ANN ARBOR, United States - A familiar chant - "No justice, no peace" - echoed through the president's office at the University of Michigan earlier this week, as dozens of graduate students hand-delivered a letter denouncing the academic institution for punishing a professor for boycotting Israel.

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American culture, has received an outpouring of support since the university reprimanded him earlier this month for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student looking to study in Israel.

Free speech advocates, university institutions and academic organisations have come to Cheney-Lippold's defence.

"To the extent that any member of our academic community feels coerced into providing a recommendation letter, or stating opinions that he or she does not believe, the integrity of the recommendation is tarnished and the academic freedom that is central to our University is impugned," the university's Faculty Senate (SACUA) said in a statement on Monday that defended the professor without identifying him.

Cheney-Lippold had his annual merit-based pay raise frozen for one year and sabbatical suspended for two years as a result of his decision not to write the recommendation letter.

Marching between buildings to hand the letters to the university president, Mark Schlissel, and the dean of social sciences, Elizabeth Cole, the students chanted against walls, repression and injustice on Tuesday.

While both Schlissel and Cole were unavailable, staff at their offices courteously received the documents, promising to hand them over to their superiors.

Schlissel's office acknowledged receiving the students' letter. "We will study it carefully before responding," a spokesperson told MEE in a brief email.

The students said they plan to stage a sit-in on the president's floor if he does not issue a public response to their letter within three to five business days.

Letters of solidarity

Groups across the US have voiced their solidarity with Cheney-Lippold, a tenured professor who cannot be fired or punished absent a major violation of his responsibilities.

Judith Tucker, president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), sent a letter to the University of Michigan's president saying that while the association has not taken a formal position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it remains committed to the principles of "academic freedom and the constitutionally protected right to free speech".

Launched by more than 170 Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories, ensure equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

"We regard your decision to arbitrarily impose disciplinary sanctions on Professor Cheney-Lippold, without affording him any opportunity to explain or justify his action in a fair hearing process with faculty participation, as having violated those principles and that right, as well as your university’s ostensible commitment to faculty governance," said Tucker, who is also a professor at Georgetown University.

Students refused to reveal their identity because of blacklists against pro-Palestine activists (MEE/Ali Harb)
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organisation for academics active on hundreds of campuses across the US, accused the University of Michigan of misrepresenting the association's standards by imposing "severe sanctions" on the professor.

The AAUP called on the university to rescind the punishment pending proper procedures, such as presenting the charges stemming from an informal inquiry before an elected faculty body.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish-American group that opposes Israeli human rights abuses, has also circulated an online petition backing Cheney-Lippold against the university's "outrageous intimidation". That petition has so far garnered more than 8,600 signatures.

University of Michigan graduate students have also published a letter denouncing the "alarming, worrying, and dangerous precedent for impinging on the protected political speech and action of employees of the university".

Protesters wary to speak publicly

Despite this wave of pressure, the upper echelon at the University of Michigan has not addressed any of these concerns.

That's why the students felt the need to personally deliver their letter to the university's leaders on Tuesday, they said.

Before walking to the offices of Schlissel and Cole, the students also held a demonstration on campus.

While the protesters chanted for academic freedom, several appeared to feel as though they couldn't express their views freely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A student from the main Palestinian solidarity group on campus (SAFE) asked for cameras and recorders to be turned off as she took the stage, citing a fear that students organising on campus against the Israeli occupation would be placed on blacklists, like the website Canary Mission.

When MEE approached a student holding a poster that read, "We support UM academic freedom," to take a photo, the protester pulled the sign up to cover his face and said he wasn't comfortable with attaching his identity to Palestine solidarity activism.

The SAFE speaker rebuked the university for failing to condemn intimidation against pro-Palestinian students and accused the administration of trying to silence professors in order to please a different segment of the campus community.

Elizabeth Walz, a graduate student, said some activists' fear of speaking out on the subject highlights the inequality at the University of Michigan.

"That is testimony to the university's unequal treatment of the students on campus - that students from certain backgrounds feel like they must take precaution to protect their own safety," Waltz told MEE.

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Cheney-Lippold is also not the only instructor to back the boycott of Israel on the University of Michigan campus.

Lucy Peterson, a teaching assistant at the university, similarly declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student planning to take classes Israel.

Peterson, the teaching assistant, said her refusal to write a letter of recommendation to Israeli academic institutions aligns with the University of Michigan's principles, as well as her own values as a Jewish woman and a political theorist.

In a column published by campus newspaper Michigan Daily, Peterson said Israel discriminates against Palestinian-Americans and would ban many of her students from studying at its universities.

In fact, earlier this month, Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem was detained at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv for two weeks over alleged support for BDS before being allowed into Israel after the country's Supreme Court ruled in her favour.

"By choosing not to contribute to Israel's discriminatory practices, I am defending equality and justice for Palestinians," Peterson wrote.

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