Michigan’s recommendation-letter Nazi

John Cheney-Lippold

First of all, let’s make it clear that when we say “recommendation-letter Nazi,” we’re using “Nazi” in pretty much the same sense that it was used in the “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. In this case, the individual in question is a University of Michigan professor named John Cheney-Lippold. A few weeks ago, when one of his students, a young woman named Abigail, sent him an e-mail asking for a recommendation for a study trip to Israel, he agreed to provide one, only to send her an e-mail some time later rescinding his agreement.

He had, he explained, “missed out on a key detail,” namely the fact that the country she was planning to study in was Israel. This was problematic, because he supports the BDS movement. “As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” he wrote. His boycotting of Israel, he told Abigail, “includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

His book

Cheney-Lippold teaches in the Department of American Culture and has written a book called We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves. He is considered an expert on the way in which we represent ourselves online. If there is anything positive about the way in which he represented himself to Abigail in that e-mail, it is that he was polite and apologetic. Nor did he try to upbraid her or guilt-trip her for studying in Israel. In the present climate, we suppose, he should get points for that, at least.

Still, anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism.

In any event, his e-mail to Abigail spread quickly on the Internet after a pro-Zionist group at U of M posted it on Facebook on September 16. One fact that emerged soon afterwards was that Cheney-Lippold was wrong in stating that many academic departments at the U of M were involved in the BDS movement. The university’s PR office issued a statement affirming that it opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, and that none of the academic departments at the univeristy was officially involved in any such boycott. “It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their [sic] personal political beliefs to limit the support they [sic] are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” read the PR office’s statement. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

Another picture of Cheney-Lippold

Peruse that last sentence again. We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students. It is nearly beautiful in its near-meaninglessness, its riot of vague abstraction. Clearly, this is one university where communications with the outside world are in charge not of students of Chaucer and Shakespeare but of people who have proven themselves to be past masters of PR lingo.

For his own part, Cheney-Lippold, after being hunted down by an intrepid staffer for the Michigan Daily, provided the following comments. “I support the boycott because I support solidarity,” he said. “I follow the idea that people who are being discriminated against or people who need help … I feel compelled to help them. I was following a call by representatives of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel in a very similar tactical frame as South Africa.” (Does he write like this? Or just talk like this?) “The idea is that I support communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

He had more to say. “As a professor, I’m not just a machine writing things for people.” No, you see, when you ask him for a letter of recommendation, you’re initiating a “dialogue,” which involves “talking through differences and really figuring out where each other stands, not expecting something or assuming something, but really trying to get into what is the key difference. Seeing what can we do more, how can we have a larger campus-wide discussion. I want to push it beyond the horse-race politics of what John did or did not say.” Horse-race politics? Don’t ask us, we don’t get it either.

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