May 1, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | On credulity and union politics: A response from a CGSU Officer on letter from Prof. Jacobson, law

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To the Editor:

The response from Prof. William Jacobson, law, to a letter to the editor that criticizes David Collum, the Betty R. Miller Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department, states at its outset that the letter to the editor “appears to be payback” for Prof. Collum’s anti-union views. Prof. Jacobson seems to have based this accusation solely on the fact that the writers are supporters of Cornell Graduate Students United. This union retaliation claim has since been picked up by right-wing media outlets with enthusiasm, and the graduate students are now subjects of online abuse.

I write to point out two related issues. One, the claim of “payback” for Prof. Collum’s views on unions is unsubstantiated. Two, the methods promoting this claim seem hypocritical. As Prof. Jacobson lambasts the accuracy of the grad students’ opinions — based on public statements made by Prof. Collum — and demands their retraction, he avoids supplying a basis for this overarching scheme of union retaliation. In defense of free speech and truth, he puts whole plots in the mouths of others, relying on nothing, apparently, but conjecture.

Prof. Collum’s anti-union views are not the issue. It is true that he holds them. Students and faculty have raised complaints about not his held opinions, but his attempts to interfere in the campaign against the rules of the CGSU-University election agreement. The complaints were taken care of through CGSU-University channels: in a bilateral committee called the Union Management Committee (on which I sit), and in arbitration. He was treated professionally throughout the process. A colleague and I even reached out to him, politely asking if he would be willing to have a clarifying discussion. His terse response was clear: he did not want to talk to us. One union member tweeted an email Prof. Collum sent to hundreds of faculty encouraging them to interfere in the vote, and he was again approached about the rules. Again, he was not treated badly. He was simply stopped from breaking rules.

There are hundreds of individual union supporters. They have opinions, and do and say things. But there is no “Dave Collum Payback Committee.” If the fact that the letter writers are also union supporters is relevant here, it is for a clear reason. Grad unions have been instrumental in helping fix broken grievance processes by various means, including through collective bargaining. It has become common to negotiate for robust grievance procedures in contracts, including third-party neutral arbitration.

So, yes. Questions about whether harassment reporting systems work, and how grievance procedures operate generally, are questions unionization does tend to raise. Creating equitable, adequate and accessible grievance procedures in the university is, and will continue to be, a task for CGSU, GPSA and graduate organizations all over.

Drawing a line between Collum’s past acts related to the union and a letter to the editor regarding his published statements that reflect attitudes about other things is guesswork, at best. But Prof. Jacobson’s union retaliation narrative checks one big political box. It stokes conservatives’ fears that they are silenced and persecuted for their beliefs by vengeful “SJWs” (short for social justice warriors) on campuses, all part of a stealth left-wing plan to usher in tyranny. Press and others eager to bolster their confirmation biases took up Prof. Jacobson’s narrative hook, line and sinker. The initial claim of “payback” frames Prof. Jacobson’s entire analysis, pressing the “right” buttons — sneaky liberals! oppressive unions!  — and causing a minor media feeding frenzy. This distracts away from the issue of Prof. Collum’s public statements and whether opinions on his likely views regarding campus sexual misconduct and gender discrimination might be reasonably drawn by a student or faculty member.

That, of course, is the only relevant issue. I guess it isn’t bloody enough.

I won’t ask Prof. Jacobson — or Red State, or The Federalist — for an apology and retraction, as he demands for others’ opinions. Conflicts around free speech, grievance policies and sexual misconduct on campus are real and fraught as it is, and we all have to struggle through them somehow, together. They don’t need conspiratorial chimeras grafted onto them by professors, who should be taking the intellectual lead on campus, not stoking fear. It is unbecoming, and pollutes our shared discourse.

Michaela Brangan, grad
CGSU administration liaison