The University of Michigan is being applauded by Jewish students and advocacy groups, after it announced “serious consequences” for instructors who withhold letters of recommendation due to their personal views.
The statement — issued by U-M President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert on Tuesday — was hailed as a robust response to two recent incidents involving students who sought to study at Tel Aviv University, but were rebuffed by instructors who support the Palestinian-led boycott campaign against Israel.
One of these instructors — associate professor John Cheney-Lippold, who kicked off the controversy in September by denying a recommendation to a student — was firmly chided over his stance in a letter by U-M interim dean and professor Elizabeth Cole last week.
He was barred from receiving a raise during the current academic year, or taking a sabbatical until the fall of 2020, and warned that future violations may result in additional discipline — up to and including the initiation of dismissal proceedings.
Schlissel and Philbert also announced the formation of “a panel of distinguished faculty members” that will clarify the obligations that instructors have to their students, regardless of personal political beliefs.
They further apologized to students who were hurt by a recent on-campus presentation by Emory Douglas, a former member of the Black Panther Party who showed an image comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Adolf Hitler. Douglas’ talk was part of a mandatory program for art and design students.
The university’s response was commended by leading Jewish communal groups, 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.”
“Hundreds of faculty serving on U.S. campuses have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel,” including more than two dozen U-M professors, she pointed out. “We hope other university presidents will follow President Schlissel’s leadership.”
The university’s stance was also warmly welcomed by some members of the Hillel Israel Cohort, an umbrella group of Israel-focused clubs at U-M, which encouraged students to wear blue and white T-shirts on Thursday in a sign of support for their community.
“The goal is to show pro-Israel students that they are not alone, show solidarity with Israel, and reveal to the campus that a large number of people support Israel and all the amazing things Israel has to offer,” explained Noah Rubinstein, a U-M sophomore and president of the Israel advocacy club I-LEAD. “This also demonstrates how we are proud to be part of the greater Michigan community.”
Rubinstein told The Algemeiner that the university’s latest actions indicated that it “supports all students.”
“Although these incidents are terrible, it is a good reminder for the pro-Israel community to bond together and come up with productive ways to improve Israel’s image on campus,” he said.
Israel has previously became a contentious topic on campus, including when U-M’s student government adopted a divestment resolution targeting the Jewish state this past November, after similar measures failed to pass on at least 10 separate occasions. Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), which led the divestment campaign, expressed its support on Tuesday for “the brave faculty and staff” who are answering the demands of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel, after protesting on campus with allied groups.
Earlier this year, concerns were also raised by some students following an on-campus lecture by Steven Salaita, a boycott activist and former academic who in 2014 lost a conditional offer of employment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after tweeting, among other things, that Zionists had transformed antisemitism “from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
Rubinstein observed that despite these incidents, and more recent matters, he felt “comfortable on campus because the pro-Israel community contains such a large number of members who are all supportive of each other.”
“I also feel supported by the university’s stance against these incidents,” he added, and endorsed student-led efforts urging U-M to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
Alex Harris, a junior at U-M who serves as Hillel’s Israel community coordinator, shared a similar outlook.
“We are grateful that the University is taking important steps to foster a positive learning environment for all its students,” Harris wrote on social media. “We also hope that the University’s response will deter other professors from attempting to limit any student’s academic opportunities in the future.”
Harris — who identified as “a proud Wolverine, a proud Jew, and a proud Zionist” — told The Algemeiner that while “at times it can be difficult” to be an outwardly pro-Israel student, “I do feel comfortable being who I am on campus.”
“I owe a lot of this sense of security to my fellow Jewish Wolverines and supporters of Israel as well as support we have from organizations on campus,” he said.