Free speech and Palestinian advocacy groups have denounced the University of Michigan for reprimanding a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student looking to study in Israel.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American culture, had agreed to write the letter, but later declined after finding the student was planning to study in Tel Aviv. The professor is engaged in an academic boycott of Israel amid its human rights abuses against Palestinians.
“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” Cheney-Lippold wrote the student, Abigail Ingber, in an email last month.
“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
On Wednesday, the Detroit News reported that the university would not grant Cheney-Lippold his annual merit-based pay increase for this academic year and will freeze his sabbatical for the next two years.
The newspaper reported that the university also threatened to fire the professor if he behaves similarly in the future. Cheney-Lippold is tenured, meaning he cannot be sacked, absent a major offence.
“Your conduct has fallen far short of the university’s and college’s expectations for how LSA (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts) faculty interact with and treat students. This letter is a strong warning that your behaviour in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated,” read a letter from the university to Cheney-Lippold, obtained by Detroit News.
Palestine Legal, a Chicago-based advocacy group, slammed the university for disciplining the professor.
Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney with the group, noted that the University of Michigan is a public institution that may not legally curb free speech.
“Contrary to the university’s position, instructors have the right to decline to write letters for a number of reasons, including their political views about institutions complicit in human rights abuses,” Sainath said in a statement.
“There is no First Amendment exception for Israel. In singling out supporters of Palestinian rights for censorship, the University of Michigan is violating free speech and academic freedom principles to which it is legally bound.”
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement called the university’s decision “shameful”.