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Michigan Professor Disciplined for Israel Letter Controversy

posted on: Oct 17, 2018

By: Alena Khan/Arab America Contributing Writer

Recently there has been a lot of attention on the University of Michigan as their decision to discipline a professor for his actions has raised many questions and concerns for the institution as a whole.

John Lippold, a professor at the University of Michigan (UM) had recently refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who he learned was planning to study abroad in Israel, at Tel Aviv University. His decision to decline and the school’s decision to discipline him has all sparked a global controversy causing a shift in the university’s system. Lippold explained to the student involved, Abigail Ingber, that because the university allowed for and embraced an “academic boycott” of Israel, that he personally stood with Palestinians and their rights, which is what in fact influenced his decision to decline writing her letter.

This is not the only instance where something like this has occurred. After, another student, Jake Secker, had approached Lucy Peterson, a student instructor who had also declined to write a letter of recommendation because of her affiliation with the academic boycott against Israel. “She denied the request, citing a pledge to boycott Israeli institutions in support of Palestinians.”

The decisions of these instructors have caused an outrage of the multiple Jewish organizations who also wrote to the University President, Mark Schlissel. On the other side of things, this also caused a stir in the Palestinian community who took to support the instructors’ stance.

A colleague of Lippold’s took a stand and wrote an open letter in support for his situation. Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan mentions in multiple examples how Lippold’s actions were justified and the university was in fact wrong. “I understand the desire to uphold students’ right of conscience and to treat them fairly,” he says, “but I think this decision by my college was wrong-headed in going too far onward disregarding faculty rights of conscience.”

However, this didn’t stop Elizabeth Cole, interim dean of the university’s College of Literature, Science and Arts, from writing Lippold a disciplinary letter. She specifically states, “…your conduct has fallen far short of the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact with and treat students…you have an obligation to support your students’ academic growth. Rather than fulfill this obligation, you used the student’s request as a platform to express your own personal views.”

Photo: Elizabeth Cole

This letter and the university’s policies were analyzed by the public throughout this whole situation, which brings many things into question. The main one being, were Lippold’s actions or intentions wrong?

In declining to write Ingber’s letter of recommendation, he wasn’t declining her the opportunity to go study abroad in Israel, he was just opting out of being apart of the process for his own personal views on Israel. In Lippold’s perspective, he views Ingber’s place of study to be discriminatory based on his own personal views, but personal views that are influenced by real-life documented policies and actions.

Now by not writing the letter, there are other ways for Ingber to file her study aboard application, maybe through another professor or instructor. Either way, Lippold’s refusal does not eliminate Ingber’s chances of studying abroad, which is what Cole implies in her letter. On the other hand, the university’s decision to discipline Lippold, to take away his merit for the 2018-19 academic year, wouldn’t that be the university denying the professor his right to free speech?

The Supreme Court itself has distinguished boycotts to be an act of free speech, so Cole’s decision to call out Lippold’s refusal being his action of free speech as “unacceptable” and “grounds for dismissal” would, in fact, be in clear violation of his guaranteed rights.

This puts into question the university’s ability to expand their own views and thinking. Are their policies too narrow-minded? Does this decision to discipline Lippold show that the university system may be ideologically inclined towards a certain position? If that’s the case, isn’t that exactly what Lippold was doing? Expressing his right to free speech and taking his own stance on things. As an educational institution that in fact embraces activism, including academic boycotts, its leaders should be able to uphold exactly what they’ve promised, freedom of speech and expression for what they believe in.