A University of Michigan instructor went back on her commitment to provide a letter of recommendation for a student after finding out the student was going to Israel for a study abroad program. This news went unreported unlike the first incident of a similar nature, as claimed by Washington Post.
In this second incident, Jake Secker, a 20-year-old junior from Great Neck, N.Y., majoring in Economics and minoring in Entrepreneurship, sought a reference from a teaching assistant, known at Michigan as a graduate student instructor, or GSI.
Lucy Peterson, the GSI, initially agreed to give a recommendation letter but when Secker told her that he was applying to Tel Aviv University, Peterson withdrew her commitment.
“I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf,” she explained. “Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine. Please know that this decision is not about you as a student or a person, and I would be happy to write a recommendation for you if you end up applying to other programs.”
The American Studies Association, voted in 2013 to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and committed to boycotting all Israeli state institutions.
Abigail Ingber, another student of the university, was denied a recommendation letter in September by Professor John Cheney-Lippold.
“I’m friends with Abby, and I’d known what happened to her,” Secker said. “I was completely in shock. I didn’t think it would happen again.”
Secker, in retaliation, contacted a board member of Michigan Hillel, a Jewish religious and cultural society on campus which was passed on to the university's governing body.
On Thursday, Secker received an email from Rosario Ceballo, associate dean for the social sciences in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “As an associate dean, part of my role is to help ensure that our students receive the best academic support possible,” wrote the dean, who is also a psychology and women’s studies professor.
“I was recently informed about some concerns regarding your letter of recommendation,” Ceballo wrote. “I take these concerns very seriously and as a first step, I hope that we might meet so that we can talk in person about what happened.”
According to Secker, the associate dean offered to write the recommendation letter herself. The student’s father thinks, despite the dean’s assurance of a recommendation letter, there should be disciplinary action against the teachers.
“I don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue. The university has a fiduciary responsibility to students,” he said, equating the school to a corporation whose shareholders, students, are owed certain returns.
Secker who disagrees with the aims of BDS and thinks that the movement stems from anti-Semitism, said that a letter of recommendation should not be used as a political tool. “It should only be about my merit as a student,” he said.
While appreciating the support from the university, he is not satisfied with “just words.” Secker is interested in “some sort of policy that prohibits teachers from denying a student an educational advancement based on a professor’s political beliefs.”
In recent years, various states in the U.S. including Michigan, have passed legislation against the BDS movement, which in recent months have scored various victories in their campaign to place economic and cultural pressure on Israel. This was done in an attempt to peacefully force the country to end its occupation of Palestinian lands, its human rights abuses in Palestine, its more-than-a-decade inhumane military blockade on Gaza, as well as its apartheid-like policies against its non-Jewish citizens.