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April 24, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Prof. David Collum, Chemistry, is owed an apology and a retraction

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To the Editor:

On April 20, 2017, The Cornell Daily Sun published a lengthy letter to the editor from seven graduate students: Kevin Hines, Robert Escriva, Ethan Susca, Mel White, Rose Agger, Kolbeinn Karlsson and Jane Glaubman.

The letter impugned the integrity of Cornell world-renowned Prof. David B. Collum, chemistry in the most serious ways, accusing him of being a rape apologist, misogynistic and unfit for the position of department chair. Several of the letter writers were graduate student union supporters active in the union vote drive. Prof. Collum has been widely criticized by union supporters for opposing the union drive. The letter appears to be payback.

In publishing that letter, The Sun gave a platform to a smear campaign against Prof. Collum in a manner that did not allow Prof. Collum to respond or provide for a verification of the context of the supposed evidence. I have researched several of the key tweets and quotes attributed to Prof. Collum in the letter, and it is clear that the way in which they are presented in the letter is misleading at best, and, in some cases, presents a false portrayal.

For example, the letter includes a tweet regarding controversial social media personality Michael Cernovich by Prof. Collum. The letter alleges:

“He has tweeted support for Mike Cernovich, a rape apologist whose social media record includes statements like: ‘Have you guys ever tried ‘raping’ a girl without using force? Try it. It’s basically impossible. Date rape does not exist’.”

Yet the actual sequence shows that the tweet in question by Prof. Collum concerned an appearance by Cernovich on 60 Minutes, not a general endorsement of everything Cernovich has done or said in his life.

In the sequence, after twitter account @volcelscience called Prof. Collum’s attention to the controversial 2012 Cernovich tweet, Prof. Collum responded “good point” and then deleted his own tweet.

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Thus, the sequence showed that rather than endorsing Cernovich’s 2012 date rape tweet as the letter suggests, Prof. Collum rejected the message in that tweet when called to his attention.

One or more of the letter writers surely were aware of this sequence because the first named writer, Kevin Hines, posted about the tweet and deletion on his own Facebook account contemporaneously with the deletion.

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Ominously, the exchange ended with a prediction that the twitter exchange would be spread to female grad students in Prof. Collum’s lab, which it was through the Sun letter:

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So not only was Prof. Collum’s tweet about Cernovich misrepresented by suggesting it related to anything other than the 60 Minutes appearance and by leaving out the full sequence, it appears that one or more grad student union supporters were involved in or monitoring the exchange right at the time the union organizers were attacking Prof. Collum for his opposition to the union drive.

Another accusation in the letter regarded the quote from Prof. Collum’s 2015 Year in Review, a 135-page document in a format published by Prof. Collum annually. The letter quotes a single sentence from page 95 as follows (emphasis in letter):

“In an effort to stem a perceived epidemic of sexual violence against women, the Department of Education sent strong messages to universities” — David B. Collum, Year in Review 2015

From that single sentence the letter argues Prof. Collum was “pushing the myth that rape on college campuses is a “perceived” threat.” The words written by Prof. Collum do not say that, of course.

Moreover, the letter leaves out the fact that that sentence ended with a footnote to a Slate DoubleX article by a prominent feminist author questioning the facts in the movie The Hunting Ground. So not only does the sentence not, by its words, amount to a denial that there is a sexual assault problem on campuses, the “perceived epidemic” wording was referencing a prominent feminist critique of a particular case.

Equally important, the letter leaves out that in the same section, Prof. Collum wrote: “Women have been the object of abuse since abuse was first invented. It is obvious to all that this is wrong an [sic] should be opposed by all rational means.”

By selectively choosing one sentence from a 135-page document, stripping out the footnote, and ignoring other language in the same section, the letter writers presented a false portrayal of Prof. Collum’s writing.

The letter also claimed that Prof. Collum “told a friend to “bring roofies” (a date rape drug) on a trip to Las Vegas.” The tweet in question, however, was taken out of its sequence and context. The twitter users were making movie references, including to Fargo and Coen Brothers movies. Prof. Collum’s tweet appears to reference the movie The Hangover, in which a group of men partying in Las Vegas can’t remember what happened because they were given roofies. I confirmed with Prof. Collum that that was what he was referencing. Prof. Collum’s tweet thus was not suggesting anyone actually bring roofies to Las Vegas, he was referencing a movie theme. This is the exact opposite of what was claimed in the letter.

Had any one of the letter writers or The Sun contacted Prof. Collum, he could have provided that context, which should have been obvious from the sequence anyway.

Another tweet used in the letter was one that said, “Moral of the story: sue your accuser.” From that tweet alone, the letter argues that Prof. Collum “has told men accused of sexual assault to sue their victims (‘accuser’).”

But the link in the tweet showed that Prof. Collum was quoting the article he was linking in the tweet, and that it was about a very specific incident at Amherst in which the male claimed to be a victim of a sexual assault by a female but asserted he was not treated fairly by university administrators. Why didn’t the letter inform readers that the tweet was a quote from another story, and provide the context, which would negate the suggestion in the letter that Prof. Collum was telling men generally to sue their accusers?

There are other accusations in the letter, which I presume readers can view in the context of the grad student union supporters’ hostility to Prof. Collum.

What is critical is that they key evidence used to smear Prof. Collum as a rape apologist is misleading, taken out of context, and creates a false narrative as to what Prof. Collum was writing.

I wrote to each of the original letter writers raising each of the points raised above and asking for a response. As of this writing, I have received no response.

These accusations in the letter to the Sun forever will appear in search engines when Prof. Collum’s name is searched. To paraphrase Raymond J. Donovan after his acquittal on fraud charges, to what department does Professor David B. Collum go to get his reputation back?

The Sun and the letter writers owe Prof. Collum an apology and retraction.

Prof. William A. Jacobson, law