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April 20, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | On a professor’s misconduct

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To the Editor:

The recent union drive at Cornell, like those at other campuses across the country, has given a voice to the issues that graduate students face. One of the most pressing issues on which grads have organized  is sexual harassment.

This issue hits close to home at Cornell, which has more active Title IX investigations than any other university in the nation. For graduate students, facts like this are especially worrisome. Per a 2015 study by the Association of American Universities, grad students were four times more likely to be sexually harassed by a professor than undergrads. Professors who supervise grads have unparalleled influence over their future careers, which can create an environment in which grads feel they do not dare to lodge complaints.

As a graduate student at Cornell, I am extremely troubled — in fact, disgusted — by the conduct of Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Chemistry Department David Collum. For years, Collum has publicly shared extremely sexist, bigoted and misogynistic statements. These statements make me wonder how he can supervise female and/or LGBTQ students without creating what the law and Cornell’s policy call a “hostile work environment.” Allow me to share some examples:

He has used transphobic slurs to describe transwomen, calling them “trannies.”

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He has made posts indicating that he sees allowing young people to identify as their preferred gender as child abuse. He then supported that claim by referencing the American College of Pediatrics (a fringe group founded to push anti-LGBTQ beliefs).

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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”

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He has repeatedly tweeted rape-apologetic views, pushing the myth that rape on college campuses is a “perceived” threat, for example:

“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

He has told men accused of sexual assault to sue their victims (“accuser”).
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He told a friend to “bring roofies” (a date rape drug) on a trip to Las Vegas.DC4

The problem of allowing such a person to supervise graduate students and graduate workers is compounded by Cornell’s policies with respect to complaints of sexual harassment: as the Department Chair for Chemistry, official complaints via Cornell’s Policy 6.4 would go through him personally. How can graduate students at risk for sexual assault and bias feel safe knowing the man handling sexual harassment complaints is a rape apologist?

Sexual harassment is a real issue which should not be taken lightly, and having a rape apologist who encourages the use of date rape drugs serve as Chair of the Chemistry Department makes it impossible for such cases to be dealt with objectively.

Cornell advertises itself as a “caring” institution, where grad students are supposed to feel — and be! — safe. But with people like Collum sitting at the table where these issues should be addressed, it makes one wonder how many cases are handled with the dignity they deserve. Indeed, it makes one wonder whether any student in the Chemistry Department would dare to bring a complaint, even in the case of the most egregious misconduct. Harassment is extensive in many labs that employ graduate students, and research shows that the high prevalence of sexual harassment in labs has been one of the major factors discouraging women from going into the STEM fields.

Cornell needs to join other universities and have official sexual assault complaints handled by a neutral and objective third party.

David Collum cannot be trusted to advise students and he needs to be removed from his position as Chair of the Chemistry Department.

Kevin Hines, grad
Robert Escriva, grad
Ethan Susca, grad
Mel White, grad
Rose Agger, grad
Kolbeinn Karlsson, grad
Jane Glaubman, grad