Lawfare, AAUP weigh in on prof who denied student Israel recommendation

The legal group Lawfare Project and the American Association of University Professors weighed in on the sanctioning of a University of Michigan professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to study in Israel.

UMich barred Professor John Cheney-Lippold from getting a raise for the 2018-2019 school year from and taking a sabbatical for the next two years.

While the Lawfare Project expressed that it wanted to see UMich take additional steps to combat what it views as anti-Semitism, the AAUP suggested that, by punishing Cheney-Lippold, UMich violated his academic freedom.

Legal experts and the American Association of University Professors have weighed in on the controversy surrounding a University of Michigan professor’s refusal to write a recommendation letter for a student to study abroad in Israel.

The University of Michigan responded to the initial incident by imposing sanctions on tenured professor John Cheney-Lippold, barring him from getting a raise for the 2018-2019 school year and from taking a sabbatical for the next two years. Lippold had refused to write letters of recommendation for students headed to Israel based on his personal boycott of the country.

The Lawfare Project, a legal group dedicated to “defending the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and pro-Israel community” has spoken out against the University of Michigan. The group claims the university’s response to the incident, as well as other “major incidents of anti-Semitism” on campus,  was unsatisfactory.

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Lawfare announced that it “warned” the university that UMich may be subject to legal action under federal and state anti-discrimination laws. The group sent a memo to UMich President Mark Schlissel and other administrators after reports that two Jewish students were denied letters of recommendation for study abroad programs - by Cheney-Lippold and teaching assistant Lucy Peterson - based on the fact that the students had intended to study in Israel.

Lawfare Project also claimed that a student was obliged to take part in a lecture that included slides equating Adolf Hitler with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as an image that “depicted Jews as pigs, drinking from bottles of money, and holding a wand with a Star of David,” according to the group.

Lawfare provided the university with “immediate and concrete” action that it should take to “rectify the current hostile environment” in order to avoid “litigation exposure,” such as adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes instances of “targeting of Israel.”

On the other hand, the American Association of University Professors Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance wrote a letter to Schlissel, asserting that the actions taken against Professor Cheney-Lippold for refusing to write the letter of recommendation were too harsh. 

[RELATED: More than 50 NYU groups pledge to boycott Israel]

“The sanctions enumerated in the letter include making Professor Cheney-Lippold ineligible for a merit increase for the 2018–19 academic year and freezing his sabbatical eligibility and credits for two years,” the letter reads. “It seems unlikely that most members of the general academic community would consider these sanctions to be minor.”

The letter then asks Schlissel to rescind Cheney-Lippold's sanctions, suggesting that the university infringed upon the professor's academic freedom.

The AAUP explained that its investment in the case comes from its “longstanding commitment to academic freedom and tenure,” based on its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, adding that the statement “has received the endorsement of more than 250 educational and professional organizations.”

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