Earlier this summer, John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, stoked public controversy when he declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student seeking to study in Israel.

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Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold speaks at a symposium at University of Michigan on Jan. 30, 2018.

Photo: University of Michigan

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” he explained in a private email, a screenshot of which was later uploaded to Facebook. “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.” (Cheney-Lippold later clarified in an interview with The Intercept that when he said “departments,” he meant to write “professors.”)

He went on to tell the student that he would be happy to write other letters in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the ongoing public debate around free speech on college campuses, this soon became national news. Subsequently, the university took an unusually public stance in condemning Cheney-Lippold’s choice.

“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,” the school told CBS News at the time. “It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported.”

On October 3, the university upped the ante. The Detroit News reported that Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, wrote to Cheney-Lippold informing him that he will be denied a merit raise during the 2018-2019 academic school year and will not be able to go on sabbatical for two years — effectively canceling a sabbatical already planned for January 2019. Furthermore, she informed him that if a similar incident were to occur in the future, he could be dismissed from his position altogether.

“It was a harassment campaign.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Cheney-Lippold said that he never intended Cole’s letter to become public — the Ann Arbor News filed a records request to obtain it — but described how it felt to be in spotlight over the summer when it was initially reported that he had declined to write the letter.

“Around two or three weeks ago, I got thousands of messages — most of them being supportive and extraordinary, but several death threats and very, very vile, often racist, sexist, and homophobic emails –accusing me of a lot of things that are obviously abhorrent, but it was a harassment campaign,” he said.

When Cole decided to sanction Cheney-Lippold, it added injury to insult. He had been planning to spend a sabbatical in January conducting an ethnography of Silicon Valley companies and workers. He now is prohibited from doing this work until fall 2020.

Cheney-Lippold views the incident through the lens of academic freedom. The incident at the University of Michigan comes amid a widespread crackdown aimed at the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to use economic and cultural boycotts to pressure Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinians.”Even if you don’t support BDS, you should still support the ability of a faculty member to not be compelled to speak,” he said.

Recently, Cheney-Lippold received some support from academia in the form of a letter from the American Association of University Professors.

The AAUP weighed in after Cheney-Lippold received a disciplinary letter from Cole that relied on AAUP guidelines, among others, as a basis for the sanctions against him. On October 16, the AAUP responded with a recommendation that heavily favored Cheney-Lippold.

In her disciplinary letter, Cole based the decision to sanction Cheney-Lippold in “longstanding norms regarding student letters of recommendation,” which were affirmed by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs last month. These guidelines suggest that teachers “encourage the free pursuit of learning,” “demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors.” Moreover, they advise professors to “make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct” and “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.”  She went on to cite the AAUP, which she said advises that merit be the primary guide for determining whether to write a recommendation letter.

However, in its letter, the AAUP criticized the University of Michigan’s sanctions as overly harsh and lacking certain procedural protections. According to the AAUP, severe sanctions like the ones levied against Cheney-Lippold would ordinarily follow “an informal inquiry” by a faculty committee as per the organization’s guidelines. Moreover, if sanctions are warranted, the AAUP standards “require an administration to demonstrate adequate cause for imposing a severe sanction in a hearing of record before an elected faculty body,” which was not done in this case.

The AAUP recommended that “the sanctions imposed on Professor Cheney-Lippold be rescinded.”

The AAUP noted that it is “additionally concerned” that Cole’s letter “appears to misrepresent AAUP-supported standards of academic freedom.” Cole’s letter criticized Cheney-Lippold for discussing the letter controversy in his classes and using class time to explain his views on BDS. She cited the AAUP as saying “it is improper for an instructor persistently to intrude material that has no relation to the subject,” and went on to argue that “[a]lthough this material was discussed in only one session, an entire class period represents a significant portion of your total contact hours with students over the semester.” But the AAUP disagreed that Cheney-Lippold’s limited discussion of his beliefs was a misuse of his role as a professor, disputing that raising the issue in one session of two different classes meets the “persistent intrusion” standard. As a result, the AAUP recommended that “the sanctions imposed on Professor Cheney-Lippold be rescinded.”

Despite the sanctions, Cheney-Lippold acknowledged that he’s lucky to have the protection of tenure: The university can only punish him up to a point. However, others may be less lucky.

Lucy Peterson, a teaching assistant at the University of Michigan, also declined to write a recommendation letter for a student studying in Israel — a risk Cheney-Lippold opted not to take before earning tenure. “Somebody like Lucy,” Cheney-Lippold told us, doesn’t have that protection.

The Intercept reached out to Peterson, who told us that last week she attended a meeting with Associate Dean of Social Science Rosario Ceballo and the chair of her department, Nancy Burns, where they asked Peterson about the facts surrounding the incident.

“They sort of were just asking questions, information-gathering. And at the end of the meeting, they said they didn’t know if there would be disciplinary action,” she told us. “I think I’ll find out soon, but I really don’t know.”

The incident at the University of Michigan is one of many BDS-related free speech controversies in recent years. In Kansas, a star teacher was denied a contract because she followed her church’s teachings and boycotted consumer products made by Israeli companies and other companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories. In Texas, contractors were told that they could only get money to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey if they pledged not to boycott Israel. But these cases have also provoked a backlash from free speech advocates. The clause on hurricane relief applications was removed following pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union and other pro-BDS activists, and the Kansas law was blocked by a federal judge.

The university’s rebuke of Cheney-Lippold was notable in part because students aren’t typically entitled to recommendation letters from professors. When The Intercept reached out to Cole for clarification about what policy Cheney-Lippold has been accused of violating, we received a terse response from Rick Fitzgerald, the assistant vice president for public affairs at the university.

“The university has a policy of not discussing personnel matters,” he told us. He said that we could file a freedom of information request to locate Cole’s full letter to Cheney-Lippold. It was subsequently made public by the press.

The free speech concerns presented by the Cheney-Lippold case were addressed in a lengthy blog post by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works to defend free speech rights of college students and faculty.

FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley declined to take a position on the issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he argued that there is little justification for punishing a professor who chooses to boycott Israel for nondiscriminatory political reasons.

“The refusal to write the letters appears to be based not on the national origin of the students, but their national destination. That is not a distinction without a difference. National destination (or whatever one might call it) is not a protected class, and the adverse effect on the students is caused not by hostility towards the students themselves but on hostility to a third party (in this case, academic institutions in Israel) that renders the affected students’ wishes to study abroad a kind of ‘collateral damage’ of the wider boycott movement,” he wrote.

“Faculty recommendation letters are, of course, a type of speech. (They are, after all, letters.) Whether or not to write them on behalf of a particular student is also traditionally, and necessarily, left to the discretion of the individual faculty member, as it would be entirely nonsensical to require faculty members to write recommendation letters for students they simply can’t or don’t recommend,” Shibley continued. “Yes, writing such letters is an expected part of the job, but generally speaking, no student has a ‘right’ to a recommendation letter.”

Correction: October 19, 2018
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Cheney-Lippold contacted the AAUP after receiving the disciplinary letter from the University of Michigan. In fact, the AAUP reached out to him.