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University of Michigan student from LI denied reference letter for Israel program, he says

The University of Michigan student, who is from Great Neck, said his instructor refused to write a recommendation letter because of her personal boycott of Israeli institutions. 

Students walk across the University of Michigan campus

Students walk across the University of Michigan campus on January 17, 2003, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Bill Pugliano

A University of Michigan student from Great Neck said he was denied a letter of recommendation to study abroad in Israel after his instructor withdrew the offer, citing a boycott of Israeli institutions.

The refusal was the second instance in about a month that a professor or instructor at the university declined to provide a reference for a student as part of a boycott in support of Palestinians. Boycott supporters say they are using nonviolent means to resist unjust policies toward Palestinians. Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state.

Jake Secker, 20, said he requested a letter of recommendation from one of his former graduate student instructors for his application to study abroad at Tel Aviv University next semester. The instructor, who Secker identified as Lucy Peterson, initially agreed to write the letter, but declined after learning Secker was applying to study in Israel, Secker said. 

Peterson said she was boycotting Israeli institutions as a way of “showing solidarity with Palestine,” according to screenshots of emails reviewed by Newsday. Peterson could not be reached for comment.

Secker, who is studying economics, said his father is a native of Israel, and they still have family living there. The student said he was shocked by Peterson’s response. 

“A letter of recommendation is supposed to be about the merit of the student,” Secker said. “It should not be about the professor’s political views.”

A dean at one of the university’s colleges later reached out to Secker and said she would be “more than happy” to write him a letter of recommendation, Secker said.  

A university spokesman said he could not comment further about Secker’s case, citing student privacy regulations.  

Last month, another University of Michigan student was refused a recommendation for similar reasons by a professor.

The university’s president, Mark Schlissel, said in an open letter published this week that the institution has apologized to the two students and ensured they have everything they need to complete their applications. The school opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, he said.

“Withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views does not meet our university’s expectations for supporting the academic aspirations of our students,” the letter reads. “Conduct that violates this expectation and harms students will not be tolerated and will be addressed with serious consequences.”

A panel was formed to reexamine the university’s policy on how faculty members balance their personal views with the responsibility they have to their students, Schlissel wrote.

"We will work to make absolutely clear that faculty members’ personal political beliefs cannot interfere with their obligations to our students," Schlissel said in the letter.

Secker said he hopes he has helped to create a dialogue about how educators' political views impact their students.

“Hopefully a policy is created and we can actually see change take place,” Secker said.

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