BDS Professor Revokes Recommendation Letter for Tel Aviv U

University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, having agreed to write a recommendation letter for his student, Abigail Ingber, withdrew his offer to do so upon realizing that the recommendation would be for study at Tel Aviv University, an academic institution in Israel.

Abigail,

I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail.  As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.  This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.

I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize.  But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.

Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I'd be happy.

After the matter went internationally viral, the university went into damage control mode and issued statements distancing itself from academic boycotts in general and from academic boycotts of Israel in particular.  Inasmuch as official statements against academic boycotts had already been issued by the university's president and provost in 2013, and by the regents in 2017,  Cheney-Lippold's assertion that "many university departments" have policies of academic boycotting of Israel was quickly questioned.  Cheney-Lippold clarified that his e-mail to Ms. Ingber:

... should [have] read "many university professors have pledged an academic boycott against Israel" instead of "many university departments[.]" ... I was in doing a lot of departmental business before/after writing that email to the student, and I accidentally mixed my words up.  I apologize for the confusion this might have caused.

I personally made inquiry of the Department of American Culture.  The chair's courteous and timely reply stated:

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.

During my own 20-plus years of university-level teaching, my department chairs were chary of stating the policies of any department other than their own (with the exception of a hastily arranged one-semester teaching gig at Yeshiva University, where my now late and lamented department chair was also serving as interim dean at the time and thereby was sufficiently knowledgeable as to the politics and policies of other departments).  Accordingly, the "nor does any other department at this university" language in the American Studies chair's email gave me reason to suspect that her reply was from a scripted boilerplate company line – a suspicion buttressed by the fact that her reply was copied to Rick Fitzgerald, the university's assistant vice president for public affairs, whose responsibilities include "reputational issues" (and with whom I had also exchanged emails on the issue).

Cheney-Lippold has reportedly waxed economical by arguing, "[R]ising tuition means a college education is increasingly understood as an investment, and a letter of recommendation as something owed to a student as a consumer."

As far as that analysis goes, I totally agree with Prof. Cheney-Lippold, and also with his right to choose whether or not to write recommendation letters.  But with every right comes a responsibility, and, in the case of a college professor, professional responsibility in writing recommendation letters demands uniformly applied standards and transparency as to what those standards are and how they are to be applied.  On that score, Cheney-Lippold failed miserably in his dealings with Abigail Ingber.

I myself have knowingly written recommendation letters for students whose political, social, or religious views have been diametrically opposite my own when their class performance and output gave me reason to give recommendation.  Students will whine and gripe about professors who may be tough graders, impose heavy workloads, or have eccentric temperaments, but resentment will be greatest against professors who use double standards in their dealings with students.

The real issue, then, is where to draw the often fuzzy line between personal views and professional responsibility.  This broad issue extends beyond the ivy-covered walls of academe.  Lawyers have the professional duty to zealously represent their clients, regardless of the lawyer's personal views.  I myself have represented clients whose situations, attitudes, and objectives were alien to my own, and I hasten to mention the zealous criminal defense mounted by Robert Servatius and Dieter Wechtenbruch in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Likewise, health care professionals often need to repress their personal inclinations in order to fulfill their professional responsibility.  Ironically, a working exemplar of this can be found at the Israeli hospital where my wife practices her specialty, where she and I both have had occasion to be admitted as patients.  The hospital's mission is carried out by Jews, Arabs, and others working together to deliver quality medical care to all patients (and medical training to all students) without regard to ethnicity, religion, or politics.  (As I have previously noted on this website the leadership in the very hospital in America where my wife practiced medicine for more than 25 years aspires to a similar standard.)

Returning to the specific case of Prof. Cheney-Lippold's renege on his agreement to write a recommendation letter for Abigail Ingber's quest to study at Tel Aviv University, two imponderables come to mind:

Firstly, I have had several occasions to visit the Tel Aviv University campus over the past few months (and was on campus even more frequently in the early 1970s, when I took some summer courses there during my undergraduate years).  During each of my visits, I have seen Arab students on campus.  If, perchance, an Arab-American student at the University of Michigan were to approach Prof. Cheney-Lippold for a recommendation letter to study at Tel Aviv University, would the professor accommodate such a request?

Secondly, given the fetish-like fixation for "quotas" held by the left in general, and by American academe in particular, with how many Israeli scholars does the American Culture Department at the University of Michigan now engage in academic relations?

Kenneth H. Ryesky, a freelance writer currently based in Israel, has taught business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY for more than two decades.

University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, having agreed to write a recommendation letter for his student, Abigail Ingber, withdrew his offer to do so upon realizing that the recommendation would be for study at Tel Aviv University, an academic institution in Israel.

Abigail,

I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail.  As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.  This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.

I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize.  But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.

Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I'd be happy.

After the matter went internationally viral, the university went into damage control mode and issued statements distancing itself from academic boycotts in general and from academic boycotts of Israel in particular.  Inasmuch as official statements against academic boycotts had already been issued by the university's president and provost in 2013, and by the regents in 2017,  Cheney-Lippold's assertion that "many university departments" have policies of academic boycotting of Israel was quickly questioned.  Cheney-Lippold clarified that his e-mail to Ms. Ingber:

... should [have] read "many university professors have pledged an academic boycott against Israel" instead of "many university departments[.]" ... I was in doing a lot of departmental business before/after writing that email to the student, and I accidentally mixed my words up.  I apologize for the confusion this might have caused.

I personally made inquiry of the Department of American Culture.  The chair's courteous and timely reply stated:

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.

During my own 20-plus years of university-level teaching, my department chairs were chary of stating the policies of any department other than their own (with the exception of a hastily arranged one-semester teaching gig at Yeshiva University, where my now late and lamented department chair was also serving as interim dean at the time and thereby was sufficiently knowledgeable as to the politics and policies of other departments).  Accordingly, the "nor does any other department at this university" language in the American Studies chair's email gave me reason to suspect that her reply was from a scripted boilerplate company line – a suspicion buttressed by the fact that her reply was copied to Rick Fitzgerald, the university's assistant vice president for public affairs, whose responsibilities include "reputational issues" (and with whom I had also exchanged emails on the issue).

Cheney-Lippold has reportedly waxed economical by arguing, "[R]ising tuition means a college education is increasingly understood as an investment, and a letter of recommendation as something owed to a student as a consumer."

As far as that analysis goes, I totally agree with Prof. Cheney-Lippold, and also with his right to choose whether or not to write recommendation letters.  But with every right comes a responsibility, and, in the case of a college professor, professional responsibility in writing recommendation letters demands uniformly applied standards and transparency as to what those standards are and how they are to be applied.  On that score, Cheney-Lippold failed miserably in his dealings with Abigail Ingber.

I myself have knowingly written recommendation letters for students whose political, social, or religious views have been diametrically opposite my own when their class performance and output gave me reason to give recommendation.  Students will whine and gripe about professors who may be tough graders, impose heavy workloads, or have eccentric temperaments, but resentment will be greatest against professors who use double standards in their dealings with students.

The real issue, then, is where to draw the often fuzzy line between personal views and professional responsibility.  This broad issue extends beyond the ivy-covered walls of academe.  Lawyers have the professional duty to zealously represent their clients, regardless of the lawyer's personal views.  I myself have represented clients whose situations, attitudes, and objectives were alien to my own, and I hasten to mention the zealous criminal defense mounted by Robert Servatius and Dieter Wechtenbruch in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Likewise, health care professionals often need to repress their personal inclinations in order to fulfill their professional responsibility.  Ironically, a working exemplar of this can be found at the Israeli hospital where my wife practices her specialty, where she and I both have had occasion to be admitted as patients.  The hospital's mission is carried out by Jews, Arabs, and others working together to deliver quality medical care to all patients (and medical training to all students) without regard to ethnicity, religion, or politics.  (As I have previously noted on this website the leadership in the very hospital in America where my wife practiced medicine for more than 25 years aspires to a similar standard.)

Returning to the specific case of Prof. Cheney-Lippold's renege on his agreement to write a recommendation letter for Abigail Ingber's quest to study at Tel Aviv University, two imponderables come to mind:

Firstly, I have had several occasions to visit the Tel Aviv University campus over the past few months (and was on campus even more frequently in the early 1970s, when I took some summer courses there during my undergraduate years).  During each of my visits, I have seen Arab students on campus.  If, perchance, an Arab-American student at the University of Michigan were to approach Prof. Cheney-Lippold for a recommendation letter to study at Tel Aviv University, would the professor accommodate such a request?

Secondly, given the fetish-like fixation for "quotas" held by the left in general, and by American academe in particular, with how many Israeli scholars does the American Culture Department at the University of Michigan now engage in academic relations?

Kenneth H. Ryesky, a freelance writer currently based in Israel, has taught business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY for more than two decades.