Film and Media Studies Department Postpones Lecture Due To Controversy

The Film and Media Studies (FMST) Department indefinitely postponed an upcoming lecture featuring University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold following community-expressed concerns that the scheduled lecture overlooked recent events. The FMST department faculty and Professor Cheney-Lippold jointly came to this decision about the lecture, which was originally scheduled for Monday, November 5.

“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.”

Cheney-Lippold is an Associate Professor in the American Culture department at the University of Michigan who studies data, privacy and algorithms. He made national headlines in September after rescinding his offer to write a University of Michigan junior’s letter of recommendation for a study abroad program in Tel Aviv, Israel. Cheney-Lippold first defended his actions by arguing that writing a recommendation letter for a student traveling to Israel would conflict with University policies.

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there,” Cheney-Lippold wrote to the student.

He later said that his response was a reflection of his personal beliefs, rather than those of the university.

The University of Michigan’s administration sanctioned Cheney-Lippold after his refusal to write the recommendation letter, taking “an unusually public stance in condemning Cheney-Lippold’s choice,” according to online news publication The Intercept. The sanctions included Cheney-Lippold being denied both a merit raise for the current school year and a planned two-year sabbatical for 2019.

According to Simonson, the FMST department invited Cheney-Lippold to speak at Colgate on February 17, 2018. Cheney-Lippold accepted the invitation on February 24.

“The invitation was extended to Professor Cheney-Lippold after he published a much acclaimed book in 2017 with NYU Press titled ‘We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves,’” Simonson said. “When inviting speakers, departments and programs are primarily concerned with their scholarship or creative work; this is what serves as the basis for our invitations. Often, we do not know the guests that we invite personally, and/or we know them strictly in a professional context, so we tend not to be aware of the specifics of their personal views.”

Benna Kushlefsky, P’21, brought attention to Cheney-Lippold’s personal beliefs by notifying Colgate parents of his upcoming visit in the Colgate Parents Facebook group.

“I thought other parents should know about this. My son is appalled,” Kushlefsky wrote on Facebook on Friday, October 26.

Kushlefsky also reached out to campus administrators and faculty, including President Casey, Dean Flores-Mills, Dean McLoughlin, Chaplain MacPherson and the Administrative Assistant of the FMST department, Angela Kowalski.

“I was concerned that Jewish students on campus would feel uncomfortable, especially knowing their University embraced Dr. Cheney-Lippold without questioning his recent behavior,”Kushlefsky said. “I hoped that Colgate students would mobilize and respond in a way that respected Professor Cheney-Lippold’s right to his political opinions but made it clear that they were disturbed by his behavior at Michigan and his presence on the Colgate campus.”

Colgate CJU/Hillel hosted a forum for its board members on Friday evening to determine an appropriate plan of action on behalf of the group in response to the planned lecture.

“As many Jewish students have expressed to me, this past weekend was a very trying and painful time for Colgate’s Jewish community,” senior and CJU/ Hillel President Emily Kahn said. “Chenney-Lippold’s actions and Saturday’s shooting [at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.] respectively show the continual rise of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in America.”

The controversy surrounding Cheney-Lippold’s personal views and his right to speak on Colgate’s campus follows a recent report on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at Colgate University published by a Task Force made up of 13 members of the Colgate community.

“Colgate aspires to a shared commitment to learning, inquiry, and community that encourages individuals to listen and speak with care, so that all voices among us are heard,” the report reads.

Contact Julia Klein at [email protected].