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.”