Khovanskaya, grad, publicizes Prof. Collum's anti-union email on Twitter.

Khovanskaya, grad, publicizes Prof. Collum's anti-union email on Twitter.

March 23, 2017

Professor Publishes Anti-Union Email Days Before Election

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This post has been updated. 

Prof. David Collum ’77, chair of the chemistry department, is under fire from Cornell Graduate Students United after sending an email filled with anti-union rhetoric. The email was allegedly sent only to faculty members, however recipients were blind-copied.

With the election just days away, CGSU members said they were “appalled” to see a faculty member “blatantly expressing anti-union views,” said Vera Khovanskaya, grad, a CGSU member.

Not only was the email shocking for its anti-union sentiments, but CGSU members felt that Collum seemed to encourage violation of the contract negotiated between CGSU and the University, according to Michaela Brangan grad, administrative liaison for CGSU. The ramifications of this email are to be determined.

In part, given the confusion surrounding the recipients of the email, members of CGSU are uncertain if Collum’s email directly violates the Code of Conduct established in a contract between the University and the union or not.

Potential Contract Violation

Collum sent the email to an unknown group of presumed faculty members. Although the emails forwarded to CGSU members had its recipients blind-copied, Collum said that he intended to address his faculty colleagues in warning them of the “risk” that unionization poses for Cornell.

“Although we must be circumspect in communications with students, I can be brutally blunt with you: I believe it will be a disaster in the long run if unionization occurs — an existential risk to Cornell’s graduate program,” the email read.

Collum told the The Sun that his email was meant for faculty only and that the email recipients were directors of graduate studies, chairs and department heads — a total of two to three hundred people.

“It was not my intention of having it distributed to students in a — what I would call with respect to the union — a propaganda sort of way,” Collum told The Sun. “I was talking to my colleagues. I had no doubt the union would get it, yes. But trying to convert union-members to non-union voters, that’s a fool’s game.”

According to Brangan, this email could potentially encourage faculty to violate the code of conduct negotiated in May 2016 between CGSU and the University regarding the code of conduct in communications between faculty members and students.

“[The email] is clearly trying to encourage faculty to have personal coercive conversations with grads. In that, it says ‘every last one,’” Brangan said. “How would a faculty member be able to get every last one of the graduate students that are working for them or are otherwise connected to them to vote unless coercively?”

However, Brangan believes that many faculty would shy away from what Collum seems to encourage.

“I think that most faculty know that this is wrong. They know that what Dave Collum is trying to get them to do is to break the agreement and to interfere in grads’ choice to unionize. Because while the language is ‘get out the vote,’ it’s still interfering in grads’ choice to unionize because grads are adults,” she said. “They don’t need coordination by another adult to get themselves to the polls.”

For this reason, the union has referred this matter to an arbitrator in the American Arbitration Association, according to Brangan. It will then be at the discretion of the arbitrator in conducting an investigation if further action should occur.

If there was a violation, it would come from Section C of the contract, regarding faculty and administration, which specifically prohibits activity by faculty members that could threaten the ability of graduate students to freely participate in the unionization recognition election.

The contract stipulates that “administrators, faculty or principal investigators shall be prohibited from threatening, promising a benefit or interrogating Graduate Assistants.”

Administrators, faculty and principal investigators are also instructed not to “engage in expression that would prevent graduate students’ ability to freely associate with the Union, engage in protected concerted activity, obtain accurate information or freely choose union representation,” the contract reads.

In response to a request for a comment regarding Collum’s email, Charles Van Loan, dean of faculty, told The Sun that he sent an email to faculty Thursday morning, reminding them about the code of conduct.

“With the unionization vote next week faculty must continue to respect these communication guidelines,” the email to faculty read. “Our graduate students deserve the best. That means maintaining an environment where unionization issues can be discussed without any pressure to vote this way or that.”

Barbara Knuth, dean of the graduate school, added that after investigation, the University has decided that Collum’s email was not in violation of the code of conduct.

“Cornell, including Counsel’s office, has investigated and carefully reviewed the emails that CGSU/AFT/NYSUT allege violate the May ’16 Agreement, and does not believe that any violations whatsoever have occurred,” Knuth said in an email. “This has been reported to the Arbitrator.”

The Email

In the email, Collum additionally encourages voter participation because of the risks.

“We must get our graduate students to vote — every last one of them,” he said in the email. “To their credit, the union has been able to engineer a remarkable pro-union campaign by assiduously avoiding direct contact with a group of students comprising ‘At What Cost’ who wished to engage in open debate. Fair and open discussion of issues has not occurred.”

Warning that graduate students have become apathetic to unionization, Collum reminds faculty of the claimed permanence of a graduate student union.

“There also is a wall of apathy out there in which many students seem uninterested in the long-term consequences to Cornell and the inordinate direct costs — thousands of dollars — they will incur over their Ph.D. in dues. Once the union is in place, it will be nearly impossible to remove it despite claims to the contrary. Forever is a very long time.”

Upon receiving the email, Khovanskaya said she was “appalled” and took the matter to Twitter, wanting to address Collum directly.

“I decided that I was going to tweet to him directly,” she said. “There’s a part of me that wonders if there’s something specific about the advising practices of David Collum that would make him so worried about what would happen if graduate students in his lab had basic labor protections.”

Not only did Khovanskaya tweet directly at Collum, but she also publicly displayed the email.

“If at any point they think the University administration is neutral, I want it to be visible that they’re actually doing pretty not neutral things,” she said. “People have to see it.”

Brangan fired back against any potential argument that Collum is merely encouraging voter participation. By encouraging faculty to ensure that each and every one of their graduate students show up to vote, this form of participating can become an act of “surveillance,” according to Brangan.

“He has no right to try to encourage faculty to coerce grads,” she said. “There will be an argument that all he’s doing is trying to say [that] it’s important for grads to vote. But how easily can it turn into coercion whenever he’s essentially trying to get faculty to collect their grads and ensure that they go to the polls?”

In response to the question of whether he’s trying to coerce graduate students, Collum told The Sun that that was in no way his intention, rather it was a dialogue among colleagues.

“I’ve played by the rules,” Collum said. “These union whiners can whine all they want. I’ve played by the rules.”

Collum added that he was not trying to engage open discussion on the topic of unionization. Instead he said “the union has chosen to publicize, not me.”

“I’m not trying to get open discussion,” he said. “I gave up on that. I’m just trying to get people to vote. I sent the email to my colleagues. It was so direct that I’d have to be a fool to think that it was designed to be transferred off to the students. I was aware that it was likely that it was going to be gotten by the union organizers. Yeah they’re students but I can’t help it if they’re prowling. I can’t help it if there are moles in the faculty. That is not my problem.”

Despite what she called a “blatant attempt to interfere with the election,” Khovanskaya said this email could provide a direct example to graduate students of the need for a union.

“Promotion of anti-union stances in ways that aren’t agreed on, by what we negotiated with the University … points evermore to the need for us to actually have something that will help us have recourse if the University isn’t following through on its agreements,” she said.

Khovanskaya even noted that she was “optimistic” about the email’s reception just days away from the election.

“The more Cornell engages in anti-union activity, the more it alerts people to the need for a union,” Khovanskaya said. “I am optimistic that people will see the role that the University is playing and will join the other graduate students in standing up for it collectively.”

Collum said he understood the risk he took with sending the email, but said he felt it was necessary to voice his opinion.

“I take risk doing this because no one is going to,” he said.

“I’m not done.”

  • Jasper Ralph

    My lord. How DARE this man have an opinion that runs counter to conventional progressive wisdom? Burn the heretic! Burn him!!!

    • Michaela

      Professor Collum can have his opinion. He has a twitter account which which he regularly updates the public on his opinions.

      But Professor Collum can’t coerce grads to do what he wants in regard to their decision to unionize, because that is an abuse of power forbidden by federal labor law and the agreement between CGSU and Cornell.

      He also should not encourage other faculty members to break the agreement by coercing “every last” grad to engage in political activity with the clear aim of trying to produce a union loss.

      I have a hard time believing that, since he has been so clear (see above) that he won’t control himself, he has been able to keep grads in Chemistry from sussing out his virulent anti-union stance. Professor Collum’s GOTV zeal, already improper, is tainted utterly by his surpassing zeal to keep grads from winning their union. It’s disappointing.

      • Michaela

        *with which 🙂

      • Dr. Ed

        It seems to me that actually “coercing” students to cast a (secret) ballot would be counterproductive. Wouldn’t such persons vote FOR the union out of spite?
        The professor is right, I saw it happen at another institution.

  • C

    Where was the outrage when a group of professors OPENLY published a pro-union letter?

    Apparently, though, it is fine to vilify a professor for telling his colleagues that he is worried the union will be a disaster in the long run. But pro-union PUBLIC messages are okay. In fact, in the Sun and in emails, I only seem to see pro-union messages, and it makes me wonder why the university agreed not to communicate much on this issue.

    It’s a shame that most faculty are both unable to speak up about this issue and also hesitant to alienate pro-union students, because professors have a long term interest in the success of this non-profit research institution. Students are being promised a windfall in stipend pay (which is dubious; they will actually end up paying large union dues) and vague “protections” from a supposedly evil university. We come and go. Professors would have a useful perspective on the issue that would help inform us as we choose how to vote, but they are being silenced.

    • Michaela

      The letter you refer to was in response to the misinformation being provided in a letter to the entire Cornell community. If you or anyone else had wanted to respond to that letter in outrage, you might have. I believe the Sun has been quite interested in showing different sides of the discussion.

      It’s possible that that faculty open letter from the fall was simply not considered outrageous and thus, did not produce outrage. But Professor Collum’s letter, which explicitly asks faculty to coerce grads, with whom faculty have a master-servant relationship, into performing political activity–and which Collum obviously hopes will somehow produce a union loss–is, perhaps, outrageous. And damningly so.

      Most professors seem to understand that grads are thinking adults with their own opinions, and so don’t think it’s their place to offer their perspective on what to vote for or against. Maybe they’ve also read the good news: faculty at places where there are grad unions aren’t really affected in their relationships with grads and support their right to collectively bargain.

      • m

        The email **only** encourages professors to encourage their students to vote, NOT to vote in any particular way. Read it more carefully.

      • Interested

        How does the letter “coerce” students to vote? Is that a metaphor, Michaela? If so, for what?

        • Interested

          And I just realized you actually said “grads, with whom faculty have a master-servant relationship.”

          Some might take very strong objection to your use of slavery as a metaphor. It carries inflammatory connotations. Can you rephrase your thoughts more productively?

          • Michaela

            “Master-servant” is a term of art in the common law (and in philosophy, but that’s not how I’m using it).

            It basically means “employment.” In particular, it means employment where the employer has a lot of control over the actions of the employee, so much so that the employer must answer for the actions of the employee.

            If I offended you, Interested, my apologies.

        • Michaela

          The letter encourages faculty to coerce “their” grads to go to the polls. “We must get our grads to vote.” “Every last one.” It takes no stretch of the imagination to see what Collum suggests is essentially “by all means necessary.”

          If I am a faculty member, and I took Professor Collum’s counsel to heart, I would assume that I am supposed to ensure grads in my sphere of influence are voting. How would I do this? By ordering them to vote, maybe, and telling them to tell me as soon as they do. Perhaps even just watching them go to the polls, and if I don’t see a grad go, reminding them to.

          If I were a grad, I would view such actions by my supervisor/advisor as intimidation, surveillance, and coercion. What if I don’t vote? What will happen to me? It seems I would displease my advisor, since they are urging me to do it and they need to know that I have. What is more coercive than this?

          Everyone should vote who has the right to. Faculty are supposed to stay out of this decision. Grads are adults.

          • Interested

            With all due respect, you are indeed stretching your imagination much, much too much to see what Collum suggests is essentially “by all means necessary” (not a phrase he uses himself). Professors don’t “order” each other to do anything. Higher ed would work a lot more smoothly if they could! Ever been to a faculty senate meeting?

  • Graduate student

    Supporting the union is like the new political correctness…

    • Michaela

      Allowing grads to make their own decisions, regarding ambulating themselves towards polls, where they alone can vote on a matter concerning their material well-being as workers, seems uncontroversial to me.

      Professor Collum is an avowed libertarian, for whom I must assume individual freedom is of paramount importance. Yet he repeatedly and consciously uses his position of influence as a department chair and senior faculty member to coerce others who have less institutional power than he, to perform political acts that he himself does not have the right to perform.

      This, to keep grads from winning the right to negotiate for their own interests. The ability to engage in contract relations is a libertarian fundament, so this is puzzling.

      It is at least an ideological contradiction, if not an outright violation of others’ individual rights of non-coercion, to behave the way he has, and is encouraging others to behave.

      • Graduate student

        You can say whatever you would like say. But I’m done with all the harassment and fake claims from the union. There probably is one union that works for the graduate students, but not this one!

        Professor Collum basically encouraged students to go out and vote and the email was sent to his colleagues. It’s a shame to attack him based on your dishonest interpretations.

        • Michaela

          I’m being totally honest, and using my real name. I’m Michaela, elected administrative liaison for CGSU 🙂 I work hard to ensure grads have the right to vote and aren’t improperly coerced by their bosses.

          Professor Collum’s plan to “get out the vote” in his department entails a plan to bribe them with a pizza party. That is basic, indeed. It is also potentially a breach of labor law.

          • Graduate student

            Great! You are “elected administrative liaison” for the union! No wonder you keep attacking Professor Collum.

            Since you are from the union, can you explain why the union keeps harass graduate students by text, phone and even knocking their apartment doors multiple times? Can you explain why the union people keep coercing graduate students to vote yes for the union even after the students refused to reveal their opinions?

            When it comes to yourself, it’s not coercion. You call it whatever you want to call.. “liberty” “individual freedom”
            When it comes to Professor Collum, even if he just asked students to vote, it’s “coercion” now!

            Double standard, I got it. Very dishonest.

          • PhD Candidate

            There is definitely a major double standard. The behavior I’ve seen from the union fanatics has been straight up predatory: harassment at work, at home, by phone, telling lies to get people to sign union cards. Meanwhile anyone expressing doubts about the benefits of a union is labeled coercive, dishonest, etc. See the uproar regarding the “At What Cost” emails, which weren’t doing anything different than the many pro-union emails we’ve all received. The union people are absolutely not encouraging a truly open debate, and are silencing dissenting opinions. Even the use of the word “anti-union” in the title of this article seems to have slur-like connotations.

          • Grad Student

            Why are you so afraid of everyone voting? Seems to me that the union workers are trying to actively stifle participation by STEM graduate students because they fear that if they actually show up to vote then the unionization effort will fail. Unionization has very little possibility of helping STEM graduate students and as of now will only cost us hundreds of dollars per year simply so the Union can make money.

      • Grad Student

        CGSU has been very active in trying to get as many grad students to commit to a “yes” vote as possible, which is perfectly reasonable and perfectly within your rights. Grad student organizers have lists of students in each department, and have been asked to go personally ensure that as many “yes” voters as possible make it to the polls.

        And that’s great! However we feel about the union, we should all want the vote to reflect the views of as many people as possible. However, there isn’t the same organization behind students who do not support the union. AFT has a full-time staff providing information and support–there is no comparable staff identifying “no” voters and pushing them to the polls. So unless everybody shows up, we’re likely to get an election that’s not representative, and that would be a real shame. Good for Professor Collum for trying to make sure his students vote, and for keeping his views on _how_ they should vote between him and other faculty (as far as anyone is aware).

  • Union Sympathizer

    This seems like an attempt to bait CGSU and distract them. He doesn’t explicitly advocate that other faculty convince grads to vote no, which would violate the agreement between Cornell and CGSU. He only explicitly advocates getting students to vote (in the context of an anti-union email, which of course *means* that he wants faculty to coerce grad students to vote no, but he has manufactured the prose so that he can deny this). I don’t know all of the details of the CGSU/Cornell agreement. Maybe that’s not allowed either. But if it is allowed, then this seems like a well-coordinated distraction tactic.

    Maybe I’m giving this piece of garbage too much credit in terms of strategy, but I think CGSU should just ignore this.

    • David Collum

      That was actually a pretty good analysis, although I might argue with the “piece of garbage” part (and my friends and family would on most days.) I repeat what I said in the Cornell Review: I think the union has run an almost picture-perfect campaign, learning from past failures. Tomorrow we find out if it worked.

      This comment is so late in the process that I am really just leaving it here for the archive.

  • Undergrad

    Thank you, Professor Collum! Someone needs to say these things.

  • AC

    Sounds like the CGSU is on a bit of a witch hunt here. Someone dare have a viewpoint different than today’s entitled progressive liberal? HOW DARE THEY!!!!!!!!!! THEY MUST BE SILENCED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • AltFact

    It violates the rules because he mentions the loss of funds as a result of dues, but fails to mention the fact that these are tax-deductible.

  • DJT

    You gotta ask, why are the union fanatics so desperate to suppress all opposing voices? Why are they afraid of open dialogue from both sides? What are they hiding? Why do they have so little confidence in their own stance that they have to use character assassination on Prof. Collum to silence him?

  • ANNOYED grad atudent

    So what you mean by “Allowing grads to make their own decisions” = having the union reps harass grad students into voting yes for the union (house visits, annoying phone calls all the time)?

    “If I were a grad, I would view such actions by my supervisor/advisor as intimidation, surveillance, and coercion. What if I don’t vote? What will happen to me?…. What is more coercive than this? Everyone should vote who has the right to. Faculty are supposed to stay out of this decision. Grads are adults.”

    –> EXACTLY MICHAELA. Grads are adults. stop harassing us into voting for the union!

    • Fed up

      I could not agree more. I have only felt coerced by one group, and that is the pro-union advocates.

  • relevant info

    Probably worth mentioning that Collum is the advisor to those at the center of the anti-union group too…

    • Grad

      So you want to say Collum coerced his students to form the anti-union group?

  • concerned

    I was leaning pro-Union until reading this article. I had no idea that the Union would milk needy grad students out of thousands of dollars – no way the union will earn this back for them. Cornell already pays better stipends than schools in expensive cities – if stipends are modified for cost of living, the students will lose even more. I appreciate Khovanskaya for bringing this confidential letter to public view – probably didn’t have the consequence she intended, though…

  • Mikey

    “…about what would happen if graduate students in his lab had basic labor protections.”

    As a former graduate student in Dave’s lab, I can safely say Dave may be one of the least abusive professors ever, and has frequently intervened on students behalf. He cares more about Cornell and its students than most ever will and he is also a talented economist. With that said, it would be wise to consider his opinions more carefully and not allow the issue to digress. And there was no coercion here as I am already gone and happily employed.

    But on a different note, I’m confused about this situation on another level. I am under the impression that it is a federal crime to open a piece of mail that is not addressed to you, even if it arrives at your residence. This is sort of the same thing. Professors are allowed to express their opinions to colleagues, and taking an email that clearly was not intended for you and publicly displaying it because you did not like what it says is ridiculous. I don’t understand how this is not more of an issue.

    • Anon

      it worked last year in an election though…

  • James Langford

    Looks like “coercive” is the latest buzzword being used to silence politically incorrect speech.

    Free speech was once something liberals stood for. The irony in attempting to silence a professor for “coercive” speech seems to be lost on the author of this article.

  • If anyone is interested, I wrote a post on my blog where I argue that 1) CGSU is making the case in favor of unionization dishonestly by cherry-picking the evidence to support their claims that students would benefit from it, 2) the groups to which CGSU is affiliated and to which most of our dues would go if we vote in favor of unionization are deeply immoral organizations that have a negative effect on education in the US and we should not fund them with dues taken from our wages and 3) even if people disagree with me about that, it’s wrong to use the law to force your colleagues to pay dues to organizations they don’t want to be associated with. Please share it as widely as possible if you think it’s interesting.

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