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

  • David B. Collum


    For the record, the letter was clearly retribution and mean spirited. The blow back in the press was well deserved. With that said, it appears to me to be a group of graduate students who, feeling the pain of losing their dream of unionization–in short, losing–struck out on their own without formal endorsement by CGSU to get their pound of flesh. For CGSU to distance itself from that kind of discourse is logical.

    Given the circumstances, I think you have shown reasonable restraint in your letter. I hasten to add that it would have been constructive for the members of CGSU to spend more time trying to understand the arguments against unionization rather than accepting as a truism the notion that graduate student unions are a panacea.


    • STEM alum

      meanwhile David Collum tweets in response to someone taking a picture of being seated next to an overweight person on an airplane “imagine if you were a big fat chick. It would start a grease fire” (status 858753898173038592) as he attempts, yet again, to @-mention the federalist link to another big twitter account in hopes that maybe they’ll retweet (status 858885286499057664). We can all see that you’re a mess, David Collum.

      But the article is correct to clarify that the point isn’t about David Collum, or even that David Collum is somehow chair of his department. The point is that grads don’t want department chairs to to hear grievances, if they’re as ridiculous as David or not. A union could help with that, of course, but that does not mean “the union” is out there to roast David.

      Thanks for writing this. Happy Mayday to everyone except David.

      • AMC Jr.

        If his Twitter or other social media posts offend you in some manner to the point of anger and rage, why on Earth would you bother to read them, or follow him, or bother at all? That behavior is quite pathological.

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      Please, don’t again turn the issue into something it isn’t. She doesn’t write that she is shunning the students–or even that she’s writing on behalf of the union. It isn’t about that. It’s about your lack of credibility and belief that this MUST be PAYBACK for your “IMPORTANT ROLE” in the LOSS of the UNION. Saying “For the record” and “clearly” doesn’t make something true or clear.

      Take some responsibility for your own public statements, Dave. It doesn’t give much to libertarianism that you seem to blame everyone but yourself for this.

      • AMC Jr.

        It sure seems to me that Dave has done nothing BUT take responsibility and stand by his words, Tweets, thoughts, etc. I think the problem is that you’re (collective) waiting for an apology or a backtracking that, quite frankly … is more than likely not going to happen.

        • Grad Worker at Cornell

          Calling an act responding to something you did “retribution” with no proof tends to give the lie to any personal responsibility rhetoric.

  • Dustin Unfeld

    Bravo Michaela!

  • Someone who doesn’t usually speak out for fear of harassment by the CGSU.

    It seems to me that you’re all a bunch of A-holes.

    This includes the department chair (though it’s not his role to not be an ass, it’s his role to be the chair).

    But it especially includes the CGSU. The ability of its hierarchy to alienate anyone on their side is amazing.

    I voted against the CGSU. I’m not against the unionization, and it’s because of crap like this that I’m against the CGSU.

  • Juju

    when I saw that many words, I thought, “oh wow, someone is going to address the actual points Prof. Jacobson made”
    But, nope. 5 minutes I won’t get back….And this is me lashing out….see how believable a motive it is?

  • Realist

    A bunch of union supporters who don’t know Collum just happen to find his Twitter feed and choose to take action? When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not unicorns. Collum singlehandedly woke the students up to the union and they sought retribution. If you think differently, you are a moron.

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      Singlehandedly…he wishes. Just a small note: evaluations about the election are going on within it, and Dave Collum’s name has come up zero times. If he were doing what you say he did, we would get a NEW ELECTION. Then he would have been singlehandedly responsible for the union getting a re-do or maybe even voluntary recognition. I’m sure that would have been awesome for him to brag about on Twitter.

      We all know you aren’t a student here. Just another twitter weirdo who thinks Dave’s cool and thinks he’s helping. (You’re not helping.)

  • Some Nerd At Cornell

    ” 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. ”

    This is absurd – Prof. Jacobson was not lambasting anyone’s opinion, he was pointing out the factual inaccuracies and unprovided context within the original article. The veracity of those original accusations is certainly a matter worthy of some discussion at least. Framing this as an attack on the “accuracy of the grad students’ opinions” is not only completely disingenuous, it is unbecoming, and pollutes our shared discourse.

  • Concerned grad student

    “Prof. Jacobson seems to have based this accusation SOLELY on the fact that the writers are supporters of Cornell Graduate Students United.”
    This is ridiculous.
    For those who have actually read the entire piece by Prof. Jacobson, it is clear that the main focus of the letter is to debunk the mis-reading of the letter-to-the-editor against Prof. Collum. Prof. Jacobson spent the majority of his letter analyzing step by step how the first letter takes Prof. Collum’s tweets out of context and distorts the meaning.
    Whether the analysis is valid is up for debate, but to convert his letter “solely” into what she calls an “union retaliation narrative” is, itself, an epitome of the narcissistic structure of CGSU.

    • Grad Worker at Cornell

      So the supposed inaccuracies of the writers (which were not “proved” either) proves the retaliation claim? She’s writing about Jacobson’s accusation of retaliation, “Concerned,” from the perspective of someone who actually knows the extent of the union’s dealings with the dude. If the students are wrong, they’re wrong. Not her point.

      Narcissism…please visit Dave Collum’s twitter feed if you want to see that.

      • Some Nerd at Cornell

        It is impossible to disassociate the content of the original piece from its intent. A well-researched and honest accounting of concerning public statements by a Cornell administrator would certainly lend credence to the claim that this expose was conceived independently from the union issue. The airing of a cherry-picked assortment of disingenuously contextualized tweets does the opposite. As concerned grad student observes, the main purpose of Prof. Jacobson’s response was not to “prove” the intent of the original piece (which is of course impossible), but to argue that it fell in to the latter category, rather than the former.

        So when Michaela writes: “Prof. Jacobson seems to have based this accusation solely on the fact that the writers are supporters of Cornell Graduate Students United”, she is entirely ignoring the bulk of Prof. Jacobson’s argument. Yes, the writers are supporters of CGSU, which is no trivial fact, but that observation is not made in a vacuum. They happen to be CGSU supporters who, almost immediately after a failed unionization vote decided to comb through Prof. Collum’s extensive internet writing history, publishing an alarmist and inaccurate representation thereof, Jacobson argues.

        The question I ask is simple: Would the original piece have been conceived, researched, and published if not for Professor Collum’s publicly stated opposition to the unionization drive? I argue that it is difficult to look at the situation and conclude that it still would have been. So Prof. Jacobson’s carefully worded statement of “The letter appears to be payback.” seems pretty reasonable.

      • Concerned grad student

        Dear Grad Worker at Cornell,

        Your inability to read is a stellar one. In my reply, I never claimed for a moment that Prof. Jacobson’s arguments had been “proven” to be “accurate.” I never used these two words. On the contrary, I explicitly wrote that “whether [Prof. Jacobson’s] analysis is valid is up for debate.”

        You then try to reorient my attention back to the fact that Michaela is “writing about Jacobson’s accusation of retaliation.” My point in the first reply is precisely that Michaela is misguided in reading Prof. Jacobson’s letter “solely” as an “accusation of retaliation.” The letter, instead, is an accusation of the claims Prof. Jacobson found to be unfounded and willfully misinterpreted; it is an accusation of defamation, of the kind of irresponsible writing he found to be the source of the injurious consequences it had created on Prof. Collum’s reputation.

        Michaela (or you, Grad Worker at Cornell) might have a a lot of personal interactions with Prof. Jacobson, who might be an evil human being from your perspective, but the truth remains that the central issue at stake in the controversy is how a professor’s published views on social media might affect his “fit” as chair of a department. Do unpublished views count as evidence of his personality? Should we go to hack Prof. Collum’s account to see what kind of a person he “actually” is? Should there be any testimonials by the students who have had direct interactions with Prof. Collum? These questions should remain the central question we need to address as a community.

        That the original letter against Prof. Collum was published almost out of the blue (from the CGSU members instead of the directly-related chemistry students as a collective entity) does raise an eyebrow of the intention of the letter. Michaela’s response is only a signature of CGSU’s narcissistic paranoia: that everything is about me me me. Her letter distracts us from the main issue to her own bitter dealings with Prof. Jacobson during the election.

        • STEM Alum

          Jacobson has been a plague for other student activist groups on campus in the past. He is a known problem and this is nothing new. No one needs to hack or “dox” as they would say, anything for either of them, they make their hateful and toxic behaviors available for everyone to see online. So, as for defamation, the original authors didn’t say anything that you can’t find already – IT’S PUBLIC CONENT.

          But, that being said, as an alum I am disgusted and ashamed to see people rush to the defense of these people at my alma mater. Why anyone would want to defend the reputation of someone with INFINITE (may I say, “unnatural” in the real world) levels of job security is beyond me. David Collum has tenure. He cannot be fired. He can say anything he wants. Come back when you have proof that either of these men have been harmed by grad students speaking up in any material way and until then I’ll be playing the saddest song for Dave on my tiny little violin.

          • Old, rich alum

            Dear STEM Alum,

            As another alum, I am disgusted and ashamed to see your posting. As Prof. Jacobson aptly demonstrated, Prof. Collum was unfairly maligned by a reckless letter quoting him out of context or wholly without context. You seem to feel that just because Collum enjoys tenure that he suffers no harm in being branded “sexist, bigoted and misogynistic.” If you feel that a person’s reputation is of no importance, that that is a sad comment on your own values. It is telling that you do not deign to actually address any of the substantive complaints made by Prof. Jacobson about the graduate student letter. You also seem confused about about defamation law. I am not saying the letter rises to the level of defamation, but quoting someone’s exact words can still be legally defamatory if the context is misleading – see the recent case of Sherrod v Breitbart.

            I want to add a quick point on whether the original letter was “payback”. To recap the facts (at least from what I can tell):
            1) Collum was an outspoken and evidently effective advocate against grad student unionization
            2) The union drive failed
            3) After the drive failed, a number of pro-unionization students reviewed years of his public tweets and cherry picked a few which they included in a letter to the Daily Sun used to tar Collum as sexist, bigoted and misogynistic
            4) Those students evidently had no direct link with Collum or even with his department
            5) No students in Collum’s department (past or present) has supported the letter

            Are these facts proof beyond a reasonable doubt that that the letter was payback? No. But they are pretty persuasive and I think most reasonable people would agree they would pass the normal civil law standard of preponderance of the evidence (or even the clear and convincing standard). I agree with Some Nerd that Prof. Jacobson’s comment that “…the letter appears to be payback..” seems eminently reasonable.

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  • MJB

    Hi Concerned,

    I’ve never met Prof. Jacobson, actually–never knew he existed until last week.

    Retaliation for Collum’s anti-union views has been the headline (see the ones I link to, above). Prof. Jacobson went on a conservative radio show today and talked about the letter in those terms…”retaliation” is the dominant narrative, and frames all the other stuff as already suspect, because there’s an unspoken motive that’s being served. But there’s no proof.

    It’s a conspiracy theory, in short. So, I wrote about that.

    If people want to skirmish some more over whether people can reasonably form opinions like what the grads had about things Prof. Collum wrote on twitter and whatnot, they are free to. But I won’t be doing it.

    I don’t think it’s remiss–or narcissistic or paranoid, or “odd” as Prof. Jacobson said in one of his blog posts–to pick your battles.


  • Cornell Graduate Student

    “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. ”

    Odd. I distinctly remember Michaela herself going around to various “community radio” stations and left wing sites to spread talk about how terrible Cornell’s was for opposing the union and creating a situation where the union was necessary to start with. It is of course far from evident how such organizations would care to interview her unless to feed their own narratives and who alerted them to care about the issue to start with in the first place. She made this evident by linking to a couple of them on another article (whose comments have been deleted). Hypocrisy much?

    Also, by aligning yourself with this letter, you’ve done a good job of showing where you and the (often opaque) union leadership stands on attempts to smear respected members of the Cornell community. It was one thing when it seemed to be a small dedicated group of Union supporters, it’s another now you’re laying the groundwork to try and continue the assault onto Dr. Jacobsen by alleging he’s trying to manipulate the public narrative.

    “people want to skirmish some more over whether people can reasonably form opinions like what the grads had about things Prof. Collum wrote on twitter and whatnot, they are free to. But I won’t be doing it. ”

    So you’re above the question of whether the accusations against Dr. Collum are true? Funny. You stated without proof they were false (“unsubstantiated” being your word, yes?). You also then deflected the whole argument in your letter to the editor.

    Now. Given your unwillingness to comment, I’m not going to respond either. Works well for me–I actually am in a department where we have work to do.

    Of course, you’ve posted in the past under different names (Michaela, MJB) in the past. So I guess there’s nothing stopping you from posting under a pseudonym or a false identity.

    Anyone can read Dr. Jacobsen’s letter and see he strings a tapestry of arguments on how the original accusations were directly taken out of context and the timing and content strongly suggests a politically-motivated attack following the leak of his email to the other faculty. The fact that all seven authors of the original accusations are on the Unions “I’m voting yes” list (and would be common knowledge to those of us on campus) only enhances the argument. That you, perhaps the pre-eminent union representative and advocate feels the need to deflect the argument to focus on Dr. Jacobsen’s motives demonstrates EXACTLY the point Dr. Jacobsen was arguing.

    –Cornell Graduate Student disgusted by the vitriol and aggressiveness of the Union leadership and membership.