Kerfuffle continues about professor who wouldn’t write a recommendation for a student to study in Israel

I’ve written earlier about University of Michigan faculty member John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture who refused to write a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate who wanted to study in Israel. (To be precise, he first agreed but then reneged when he found the letter was for an Israeli program. Cheney-Lippold is a supporter of the anti-Semitic BDS program.) My view was that once Cheney-Lippold had agreed to write a letter—and it would have been a positive one judging by his offer to recommend the student for other programs—he was bound, as a professional duty, to write a supportive letter. His politics aren’t supposed to impede the careers of his students.

I offered that opinion in an email sent to the President of the University of Michigan, to Cheney-Lippold’s chair, and to the several trustees of the University of Michigan. I did not ask that Cheney-Lippold be fired, but rather that the University clarify that a professor’s political opinions should not play a role in whether a student should get a letter of recommendation. So far I haven’t heard back, except for a lame response from Cheney-Lippold’s chair (see below).

Inside Higher Ed (IHE) gives some newer responses to this controversy. The first is the University of Michigan’s own statement, which they then changed, supposedly on grounds of brevity (what a crock!). My emphasis on this IHE report:

The University of Michigan, for its part, issued a statement affirming its opposition to the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and clarifying that no academic department or unit has taken a stance in support of it.

“Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution,” the university said in a statement issued Tuesday. An earlier statement from the university described the faculty member’s decision as “disappointing,” but that language was removed from the subsequent statement, which a spokesman said was revised for purposes of concision.

Does anybody believe that “concision” excuse?

Then of course professors were interviewed, and of course their views differed, with the Israel-hating ones saying that Cheney-Lippold’s decision was fine. On my part, I would have written a letter had a student asked me to study in Palestine (given, of course, that I could have positively recommended the student on academic grounds). A reader asked me if I would have written a recommendation for a student to work with the Templeton Foundation, which I loathe. My answer was, “Of course!”. To me it’s not a matter of freedom of speech, or of academic freedom, but of professional duty: helping and mentoring your students.

While the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts like the BDS movement, didn’t issue an official statement, some of its members gave their opinion, all opposing what Cheney-Lippold did. IHE reports:

“In general, AAUP policy does not address whether faculty are obligated to write letters of reference,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, the associate secretary of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. “I think that it’s generally understood that writing such letters falls within the professional duties of faculty members. I also think that it’s generally understood that faculty members may decline to write a particular letter in particular instances, for example, because they believe that they have insufficient information on which to base such a letter. In general, refusing to write a letter of reference on grounds that are discriminatory would appear to be at odds with the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics.”

John K. Wilson, the co-editor of the AAUP’s blog, “Academe,” said, “Writing a letter of recommendation is not like teaching a class; it is a voluntary activity, and not a necessary part of one’s academic work. Professors are given broad discretion to decide how, and if, to write a letter. And they can decline if they think the opportunity is not in the best interests of the student, even if the student disagrees.”

“However, I think it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation.” Wilson stressed however, that the professor should not be punished. “If a professor was systematically refusing to write letters of recommendation because they are time-consuming and unrewarded in academia, it might be appropriate for colleagues to judge it as a small mark against them on the service criterion. But a singular case like this certainly should not be punished in any way,” he said.

Cary Nelson, a former AAUP president and an opponent of the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, argued on the other hand that the professor could be punished. “What the professor did violated the student’s academic freedom — the right to apply to study at any program anywhere in the world,” said Nelson, a professor emeritus of English and Jewish culture and society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nelson said he believes it is a violation of professional ethics for a professor to decline to write a letter for a student on the basis of politics. A faculty member has the right not to write a recommendation, but not based on political objections to the university or nation in which the student is interested in studying, or the student’s own politics, Nelson argued.

I agree with all of these people, including about the lack of punishment. IHE also got dissenting statements from those who participate in boycotts of Israel. You can read their pathetic rationalizations for yourself, but here’s one:

Reflecting a different view, David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University, Northridge, and a member of the organizing collective of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, argued it was the professor’s prerogative not to write the letter. Klein, who opposes study abroad programming in Israel, said he agreed with Cheney-Lippold’s decision.

“First of all, a professor has a right to decline a request to write a letter of recommendation under any circumstances: that’s a choice a professor makes about a student and a goal. In this case I think it’s the ethical thing to do. The study abroad program for Israel is really a propaganda program to legitimize the apartheid system in Israel and I think it’s proper for a professor to object to participate in that,” Klein said.

Once someone starts using the words “apartheid state” with respect to Israel, while ignoring the much greater “apartheid-ness” of Palestine (actually, I don’t like the use of that word outside the topic of South Africa), you know they’ve jumped the shark. If any state is an apartheid state, it’s the Palestinian territories, but of course these mushbrained Lefties ignore that.

But enough. Here’s the tepid response to the letter I wrote(see it here) from Cheney-Lippold’s chair, Alexandra Stern. Note that my letter already said that the University of Michigan and its departments do not have positions on divestment. apparently Dr. Stern not read what I wrote:

Dear Dr. Coyne:
Thank you for your message. 

Our department does not have a position on BDS (nor does any other department at this university). University of Michigan has long opposed boycotts and has made official public statements to this effect in 2013 and 2017.

The University’s official statement regarding this matter can be found here.

Warm wishes,


Reading the last link, I do find something a bit heartening (I’ve put it in bold):

University of Michigan statement
Sept. 18, 2018

Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.

The academic goals of our students are of paramount importance. It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported. In this particular situation, the student has asked that we respect this as a private matter.

While members of the University of Michigan community have a wide range of individual opinions on this and many other topics, the university has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.

No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a stance that departs from this long-held university position.

The university’s approach has been stated publicly by university leaders, including this statement from the president and provost in 2013 and this statement from members of the university’s governing Board of Regents in 2017.

Maybe they can have a quiet word with Dr. Cheney-Lippold about his university’s “values and expectations.”



  1. Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    There are groups that I would not communicate with for any reason or do anything to support or aid. Helping them find qualified people to work for them is not something I would do. That would trump any other obligations that I had, even to my profession, my employer, or to a student

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      I have heard right to lifers talk that way too. It’s my way or the highway for everyone.

      • Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        I am not a right to lifer.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          And I did not say you were.

          • Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            I did not say you said I was.

            • Randall Schenck
              Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              Very good. Hopefully you are not too old to understand the metaphor.

      • Posted September 24, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        Hofstaedter called it the 100% mind. That book is from 1962. I bet Old Guy knows the 100% mindset like he knows his own.

        • Diane G
          Posted September 30, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          Let’s not get ageist, here.

        • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

          That is not funny. That is just pathetic and over the line.

    • Diane G
      Posted September 30, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      I concur. I doubt I’d write a letter of recommend anyone to ISIS.

      • Diane G
        Posted September 30, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        “I doubt I’d recommend anyone to ISIS.”

        • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          But our host, JB and RS say you have to .

      • Posted October 21, 2018 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        I could whole-heartedly recommend Prof. Cheney-Lippold to their propaganda department.

        • Diane G
          Posted October 21, 2018 at 10:22 pm | Permalink


  2. JezGrove
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Of course, BDS also prevents collaboration with Israelis who are pro-Palestinian or critical of Netanyahu’s government.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    … supposedly on grounds of brevity (what a crock!)

    Brevity being the soul of witlessness in this instance.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    You did not ask that the teacher be fired but I don’t know. If, because of his personal beliefs he knocks out a student’s chance at something why not recommend letting him go to another school were his personal opinions are allowed in the classroom to such a degree. This is just a little bit similar to the separation of church and state experience. My religion allows me to overturn or ignore the law – we atheist know that is not right. Everyone should know what this teacher did is not right either.

    • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      What is in his contract? Does it say he has to write a letter if requested to . If not, then he did not have to write the letter.

    • Posted October 21, 2018 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      BDS is very widespread and pernicious. To punish severely a single proponent of it would look like scapegoating.

  5. Posted September 24, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    “a professor has a right to decline a request to write a letter of recommendation under any circumstances” — this is obviously false. A professor can’t decide who to endorse based on race, gender, national origin, religion, etc. Discrimination based on the student’s planned region of study is awfully similar to bigotry based on national origin. Why is this even a debate?

    • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think not writing a letter can be called hate speech.

  6. Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Furthering your studies in Israel does not imply your support of Israel. The University of Michigan and its prof should review their indefensible positions.

  7. Malgorzata
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink


  8. mikeyc
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Quiet words with “mushbrained lefties” like Dr. Cheney-Lippold will do no good whatsoever. He was only being righteous in service to his Woke gods. No words, no matter how well done, will change the minds of the devout.

  9. keith
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry in this instance, but simply saying not to let political considerations influence recommendation letter decisions is potentially more difficult than it might seem at first glance. I would not write a letter for a student who was a creationist nor an anti-vaxxer. I can justify my position based on my evaluation of such students’ scientific acumen, but some might argue that my position is a political one.

    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      I don’t think you would be justified unless the position for which they were applying is related to the view you find objectionable. I wouldn’t write a letter of recommendation for a creationist for a science related position, but there’s no reason why I wouldn’t recommend them as an accountant, if I thought they would be good at it..

    • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Who gets to decide whether or not the decision is political and what law or contract is violated if the grounds are political.

  10. eric
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    A reader asked me if I would have written a recommendation for a student to work with the Templeton Foundation, which I loathe. My answer was, “Of course!”.

    Given Prof. Klein’s language about it being a “propaganda program to legitimize…” I think a better analogy would be one of your students asking for your recommendation to go study at the Discovery Institute. I can see a professor legitimately turning down that request based on their professional opinion that such an “opportunity” would actually not be in the best interests of the student or his/her career. Or granting it, if they think the students’ own choice is what matters most.


    Honestly I think the ‘best’ response to this professor has been exactly what he’s gotten: peer criticism. Institutional punishments (such as firing) are probably a cure worse than the disease, since you certainly don’t want professors feeling coerced/compelled into writing letters of rec. they wouldn’t otherwise write. But social opprobrium from the academic community is certainly appropriate.

    • AC Harper
      Posted September 24, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      But, on the other hand, if such a professor does not receive some formal (or informal) penalty for privileging his political views over the aspirations of the student then the consolidation of the authoritarian left (in this case) continues. Virtue signalling all the way down.

  11. Doug
    Posted September 24, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the professor can post a list of ALL the countries for which he would refuse to write such a letter, to avoid a repeat of this in the future. Or is Israel the only one?

    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Dollars to doughnuts that you’re right, that it’s only about Israel.

      • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        Surely not. That would be a political decision. Which is not allowed.

    • Posted September 30, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      The a argument is you cannot refuse to write a letter to any state or organization. It is simply a ridiculous argument.

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