Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. David Collum ’77 tweeted a series of inflammatory comments, defending Buffalo police officers for pushing an elderly man. The tweets prompted waves of students to call for the professor's ouster.

June 5, 2020

As Students Protest Police Brutality, Chemistry Professor Fans Flames By Defending Cops in Incident Gov. Cuomo Called ‘Disgraceful’

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Editor’s note: This article references anti-Black violence and police brutality.

Prof. David Collum ’77, chemistry, has come under fire from both students and administrators for a series of Thursday night tweets defending police officers that pushed and severely injured an elderly man.

In a graphic film that has since become viral, a 75-year-old white man could be seen lightly brushing up against Buffalo police — who donned heavy tactical gear — as he approaches them. In response, two of the cops shoved the man, causing him to fall and hit his head.  As the man lays bleeding and unresponsive, over a dozen officers appear to simply walk away, failing to deliver aid.

On Friday morning, authorities said the man was hospitalized in “serious, but stable” condition.

Following the video’s release, the Buffalo Police Department swiftly announced that it would suspend the two officers involved without pay.  A slew of elected officials were quick to condemn the officers’ behavior, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) calling the incident “wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful.”

But despite widespread condemnation of the recording,  Collum argued in a tweet that the incident “wasn’t brutality,” and it happened because “the guy was feeble.”

“The cracked skull … was self-inflicted,” Collum wrote, defending the police’s aggressive response. “That guy needed to give that cop space.”

IMG1186177239392148744In a separate message, Collum tweeted: “Can you imagine how fried these cops are at this point? The guy got a nudge.”

The social media backlash to the professor’s controversial comments was swift, almost immediately prompting various calls for his ouster.  Just one hour after Collum’s tweet, actor Kumail Nanjiani — best known for his starring role on HBO’s Silicon Valley — publicly called him out.

Collum, who declined The Sun’s request for comment, quickly turned his Twitter account private following the outpouring of criticism and condemnation.

While Cornell and its peers’ academic policies typically protect tenured faculty’s political speech — even when it’s controversial — the swift backlash to Collum’s comments has prompted the question of where, and if, a line should be drawn.

A day after the incendiary tweets, President Martha E. Pollack issued a statement that mostly condemned the actions of the Buffalo police officers, but added that Collum’s comments were “not just deeply insensitive, but deeply offensive.”

“While Professor Collum has a right to express his views in his private life, we also have a right and an obligation to call out positions that are at direct odds with Cornell’s ethos,” Pollack said in the statement, which was also signed by Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Cornell University Police Department Chief David Honan.

Students also penned a petition, demanding that the University fire Collum. As of Friday afternoon, the petition has 270 signatures from students and alumni.

“Cornell’s protection of him is shameful and offensive,” the petition read. “He is a perpetrator of institutionalized racism and a supporter of police brutality against peaceful protestors.”

A self-described “libertarian” on his Twitter profile, this is not the first time that Collum has made politically charged statements. In April 2017, graduate students said that Collum had a history of making sexist, bigoted and misogynstic comments, adding that the professor used transphobic slurs and that he believed that allowing young people to identify as their preferred gender was equivalent to child abuse.

Collum encouraged men accused of sexual assault to sue their victims in a February 2017 tweet, and made comments about how rape on college campuses is only a “perceived” threat.

The chemistry professor also sent an email filled with anti-union rhetoric in March 2017 to faculty members days before a certification election, writing that the unionization would pose “an existential risk to Cornell’s graduate program.” Collum wrote in the email that a union would be “impossible to remove it despite claims to the contrary. Forever is a very long time.”

Members of Cornell Graduate Students United said they were “appalled” that a faculty member would express explicitly anti-union views. CGSU alleged that Collum’s email violated the contract negotiated between the University and the union, claiming that the email could discourage graduate students to freely participate in a unionization recognition election.

Collum, however, contended that his email was intended only for faculty and was made public to students only because of a leak. At the time, the University conducted an investigation into the incident, and determined that Collum’s email did not violate the code of conduct negotiated in the contract.

Prof. William Jacobson, law, has been one of Collum’s biggest supporters on campus, writing that the letter to the editor signed by graduate students was “payback” for his anti-union views.

But Jacobson, too, has his own history of running starkly against campus opinion, holding a generally dismissive view towards Black Lives Matter.  For instance, on his popular conservative blog Legal Insurrection, he recently wrote an article in which he blamed the rise of the BLM movement on “fraudulent narratives of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases” that “concocted a false narrative of mass murder of Blacks at the hands of police, when the statistics show otherwise.” He also claimed that the law enforcement system is being undermined by “leftist billionaires,” including George Soros.

Collum’s and Jacobson’s comments come as universities across the U.S. grapple with how to respond to professors who make inflammatory or insensitive comments about protesters, police brutality and Black students.

At University of California, Los Angeles, accounting lecturer Gordon Klein took issue with students asking if their Black peers could be given accommodations during finals. Klein responded to the students’ request with inappropriate questions, asking how he should accommodate mixed students and claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. said “people should not be evaluated based ‘on the color of their skin.’” UCLA said it would now look into the incident.

Scott Senjo, formerly a professor at Weber State University in Utah, had to resign after tweeting that he would have driven a car into protesters and expressing support for attacking journalists covering the protests. The comments prompted swift backlash from students, and petitions calling for his termination soon circulated online. Ultimately, Weber State put Senjo on administrative leave before he had decided to resign.

It remains unclear whether the University will take any disciplinary action against Collum.