The request was simple. Happens all the time. A University of Michigan student who planned to study a semester abroad asked one of her professors for a recommendation letter.
He was willing to do it.
And then he changed his mind.
Not because she wasn’t a good student. Not because of what she wanted to study. But because of where she wanted to study:
“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” wrote John Cheney-Lippold, who teaches Internet and cultural studies. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there…
“…for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”
Bottom line: no recommendation.
Let’s break this down. A college professor, hired to encourage young minds to think, slams his pen closed on a student’s desire to learn at a prestigious international university because he doesn’t like the politics of the country.
Question for U-M:
Who exactly are you here to serve?
Right to study should be untouchable
It’s getting harder to tell. Lately there has been a stream of headlines about free speech and radical professors and which speakers are welcome and which are not. U-M itself has been fighting a lawsuit over its anti-bullying policies. Hate speech. Safe spaces. The echo from American campuses is mostly shouting.
But through it all, the right to study has stayed largely untouched. As it should be. If colleges shut books, they might as well shut doors.
Now here comes Cheney-Lippold to say that the recommendation letter, long a staple of opening doors for student opportunity, is OK to weaponize as a tool for personal politics.
“Everybody has the right to withhold something,” Cheney-Lippold told the Washington Post, “and I chose to exercise that right based on what the movement needs from me as a solidarity activist.”
The “movement” he refers to is BDS, which stands for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, a campaign that promotes various boycotts against Israel. And while Cheney-Lippold has every right to be a follower, when he says he’s doing what “the movement needs from me as a solidarity activist,” I might suggest U-M ask him, “What about what we need from you as a teacher?”
Which, unlike BDS, they pay him for.
Since when does a professor get to inject his politics ahead of a student’s academics? No, he is not required to write a recommendation letter, but the reasons should be that the student doesn’t warrant it or hasn’t earned it. Not because, despite the student’s apparent merit, he has got an issue with the location.
When Cheney-Lippold says, “everybody has the right to withhold something,” he’s conveniently ignoring his actual job. Would he be tolerated if he decided to withhold office hours, or marking a paper, because he didn’t like the politics of where a particular student came from?
Of course not. He’d be gone in a minute. So where is any U-M action on this blatantly capricious act — not to mention what some feel is his not-so-subtle antisemitism, a charge the teacher denies? You wonder if Cheney-Lippold refused to write a recommendation for a Muslim student wanting to study at the University of Damascus, citing Syria’s human rights record, would everyone be so quiet?
To date, while U-M has said it does not support boycotts of Israel, it has done nothing to Cheney-Lippold except issue a general statement that didn’t mention his name. It included this sentence:
“Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”
Well, OK. Do something about it.
The hypocrisy is astounding
Michigan did point out that Cheney-Lippold was wrong when he said “many departments” have chosen to boycott Israel. Actually, none have.
Hey, professor. Facts matter.
But that’s hardly the only thing wrong with his stance. Forget the puzzlement of discouraging study in perhaps the only nation in the Middle East that has laws protecting free speech. What about the academic notion that if you want to understand something, you should go and examine it?
If Cheney-Lippold thinks Israel is so oppressive, encouraging a student to go see for herself might sway her to his view, wouldn’t it?
But no. Cheney-Lippold wears his loyalty to BDS as a badge of honor, an academic in favor of shutting down academic choices. While decrying what he claims are human rights violations by Israel, he said in his email that he would gladly write the student a recommendation if she wanted to study someplace else.
What place, I wonder, would meet his approval? China? Russia? A host of African or South American countries? If being accused of a human rights violation by the United Nations is his criterion, he couldn’t write a recommendation to study in America.
But the hypocrisy of espousing open-mindedness while being close-minded is not limited to Cheney-Lippold. The co-founder of the group he so passionately aligns with, a Palestinian named Omar Barghouti, actually studied at Tel Aviv University himself — the same school the young woman wants to attend!
When asked about his studying there, Barghouti told the Associated Press that Palestinians like himself “cannot possibly observe the same boycott guidelines” as they ask of their BDS followers, and that he was entitled to everything he could get from the Israeli system.
By the way, at the time, despite a petition reportedly signed by nearly 185,000 people calling for his expulsion, Tel Aviv University refused to expel Barghouti. Perhaps it respected something Cheney-Lippold apparently does not: that shutting someone out of a legitimate education opportunity doesn’t make you righteous, it makes you small.
That’s called principle. It would be nice if U-M paid that principle more than lip service.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.