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Professor group criticizes UMich prof who refused letter of recommendation to Israel program

‘Would appear to be at odds’ with our ethics statement

John Cheney-Lippold is “not just a machine writing things for people,” and few would say that the University of Michigan professor has to write every letter of recommendation requested of him by a student.

But his decision to rescind an offer to a student to write a letter, based on his fealty to the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanction movement, is drawing criticism from an academic freedom group.

Officials from the American Association of University Professors told Inside Higher Ed that Cheney-Lippold appeared to violate its ethics statement and general principles of the professoriate by discriminating against a student’s choice of study-abroad program:

“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. …

“However, I think it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation.”

MORE: Citing BDS, UMich prof refuses letter of recommendation

Wilson disagrees with former AAUP President Cary Nelson on whether Cheney-Lippold should be punished for using BDS to harm a student’s chances in a program.

Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, publicly supported his school’s decision to rescind a job offer to a vocally anti-Israel professor four years ago, leading AAUP to publicly distance itself from him. According to Inside Higher Ed:

“What the professor [Cheney-Lippold] 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.

One unabashed defender of Cheney-Lippold is, unsurprisingly, an organizer for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

California State University-Northridge Prof. David Klein, who opposes study abroad programming in Israel, told Inside Higher Ed a professor can refuse to write a letter “under any circumstances” and it’s “ethical” to refuse:

Asked whether a professor’s political views can constitute valid reasons not to write a recommendation, Klein said, “I think that’s a complicated question, because politics is a very broad category. But within politics there are ethical principles, too. Antiracism is a political position, and I think antiracism is a legitimate political position to invoke in situations like this, whereas other more superficial political considerations like Republican versus Democrat would not be appropriate.”

Read the article.

MORE: AAUP distances itself from Nelson on anti-Israel prof’s rescinded offer

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