June 8, 2020

GUEST ROOM | A response to Cornell’s statement on Prof. David Collum ’77

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Dear President Martha E. Pollack, Vice Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and Chief David Honan,

On June 4th, Buffalo police brutalized an elderly man in an upheaval of police abuse that has spanned this country. Cornell Prof. David Collum ’77, Chemistry, publicly defended that violence. In your statement the next day, you claimed that “Professor Collum has a right to express his views in his private life.” This so-called “right” — to express your views and remain a professor at an elite institution — is not borne from the Constitution, nor any federal or state law: The University extends it, and can just as easily take it away. We, the undersigned, urge you to consider the consequences of extending this right to David Collum.

You wrote that “Cornell is founded on a vision of a university, and by extension, a world for “any person.” Do you believe that “any person” would feel safe working for or taking a class from Prof. Collum? Few should, given his publicized history making light of rape, attacking transgender and gender nonconforming people, and now engaging with racist police apologetics. So long as he remains a professor of chemistry, students enrolling in chemistry classes and graduate programs must look over their shoulders.

When some people enroll in classes or apply to graduate school, they get to focus on the academic merits of their decision: who does the best research, or will teach what you need to learn? So long as people like Prof. Collum remain on Cornell’s faculty, that ability remains a privilege. Should women, black and brown people, transgender and gender nonconforming people and other marginalized communities have to research both the science and the personal views of prospective faculty mentors? Every day that you leave Prof. Collum in his position, you say that they should.

Restricting Cornell’s safe options for mentorship is a tool of discrimination. Every faculty member whose bigoted words and actions preclude their safe mentorship of marginalized people is a portion of the department that has implicitly said they aren’t welcome. It is a percentage of academic positions that they simply cannot take. By tolerating Prof. Collum, you are decreasing the marginalized population of Cornell’s Chemistry department. His presence does and will continue to lead people to self-select away.

If this is the Cornell you want — a Cornell for “any person,” so long as they are brave enough to submit to the power of someone who publicly despises them — then this is what you have. President Martha Pollack, in your June 3rd statement you wrote,

Words are important. Words matter. But our words — of sympathy, of support, of shared pain — are not enough. While the challenges are enormous, and we cannot fix them on our own, that does not absolve us from taking whatever steps we can to fight against systemic racism and structural inequality.

Your mere words of condemnation do nothing but tell potential students: We have this man on faculty, and we will keep him here to harm you.


Jaron Kent-Dobias, on behalf of more than 350 Cornell community members.

Jaron Kent-Dobias is a graduate student at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.