University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold unabashedly reneged upon his agreement to write a recommendation letter for his student Abigail Ingber solely because the program to which Ms. Ingber sought admission is under the aegis of an Israeli academic institution. This, in turn, has evoked various controversies in academic circles.
Even if motivated by politics, bias, or hatred, a professor’s decision to write or to not write a letter of recommendation for a student needs to be the sole and unquestioned prerogative of the professor; else recommendation letters would have no value or meaning. There must, however, be ethical behavior on the part of the professor.
Cheney-Lippold has a surfeit of ethical issues which extend beyond the fact that his reneging was admittedly timed to follow his receipt of his tenure letter from the university, beyond the fact that a few weeks prior to his tenure grant he presented a paper at a conference cosponsored in no small part by an Israeli academic institution, and irrespective of whether academic boycotts of any sort are or are not ethical.
First and foremost, Cheney-Lippold misrepresented his personal participation in the BDS academic boycott of Israeli institutions as the policy of his department, and when called out on that misrepresentation (which ran contrary to official University statements issued and publicized in 2013 and in 2017) lamely explained that his initial e-mail to 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.
Cheney-Lippold’s proffered excuse strains credibility; at best, even if he really did “accidentally mix [his] words up,” he, as a tenured full-time faculty member, recklessly failed in his duty to ascertain actual departmental policy before representing it to his student. This gross misrepresentation alone compelled the University of Michigan to impose disciplinary sanctions upon Cheney-Lippold.
Secondly, Cheney-Lippold reportedly complained to a Washington Post reporter to the effect that controversy such as that which arose over the Ingber recommendation letter arises “when instructors are honest about the way their political commitments shape their academic responsibilities.”
I have written recommendation letters for students whose religious and sociopolitical outlooks were totally incompatible with my own, and I have represented clients whose political views diametrically differed from my own. When sitting as an arbitrator in the Civil Court of the City of New York I adhered to my ethical duty to put all politics aside when applying the law to adjudicate the disputes between the parties standing at the bench.
A university professor’s “political commitments” should not shape his or her professional responsibilities any more than a physician’s politics should shape the professional care he or she provides to patients, nor any more than a judge’s or arbitrator’s personal politics should shape his or her application of the law in adjudicating the disputes of the cases that come before the bench.
Cheney-Lippold’s excuses and explanations all seem use “politics” and “political considerations” as justifications, thereby implicating some external locus of control which would absolve him of any personal responsibility for his actions; the “Devil made me do it” excuse. In addition to being another reason to disbelieve Cheney-Lippold’s word, this also belies a basic character deficiency by which his “ethics” are relegated to the politics du jour.
On account of the discipline meted out to him by the university, various groups of academics made Cheney-Lippold their poster child for their purported causes, ranging from the boycott of Israel itself to academic freedom.
At the heels of the Cheney-Lippold affair, a strikingly similar incident occurred at the University of Michigan, this time involving Lucy Peterson, a Graduate Student Instructor who unabashedly reneged on writing a recommendation letter for student Jake Secker.
As the shrapnel from the Cheney-Lippold and Peterson affairs flew, another department of the university moved forward with its plans to host a decidedly anti-Israel event; that hatefest in fact occurred even as funerals for some of the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre were in progress.
Meanwhile, Colgate University, which had previously invited Cheney-Lippold to give a lecture in his specialty, has placed the event on hold:
“We’ve realized that in order to ensure that Professor Cheney-Lippold’s visit is as productive as possible for our students, we need to take a bit more time to have open discussions about his scholarship, as well as what Colgate’s commitment to academic freedom means in a situation like this,” director of the FMST program Mary Simonson said. “We are currently working with Professor Cheney-Lippold to identify a new date, but no time frame has been set yet.”
Colgate’s change of plan was instigated by Benna Kushlefsky, the parent of a Colgate student. Kushlefsky is an attorney who has represented murder defendants in capital cases, and has donated money to the campaign of at least one Democrat having leftward-leaning tendencies; moreover, she apparently has the stamina and fortitude to soldier onward notwithstanding her recent bereavement from the untimely loss of her husband.
Goal #9 of The 13 Goals of a Colgate Education is to “[s]et an example of ethical behavior in public and in private.” Given Cheney-Lippold’s ethical issues, Colgate now could use either (A) the Cheney-Lippold controversy’s passage from the public eye, or (B) a face-saving way to wash its hands of Cheney-Lippold. Ms. Kushlefsky’s background projects the public perception that she would not allow the first alternative to happen without putting up a fight, and that a dismisal of her concerns would be fraught with hazards.
Abigail Ingber has been accepted into the Tel Aviv University program to which she applied, and for which Cheney-Lippold reneged on his recommendation letter agreement.
By: Kenneth H. Ryesky
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.
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