The Case Against CGSU: An Interview with Professor Dave Collum

Professor Dave Collum, the chair of the chemistry department, was the subject of a recent article in The Cornell Daily Sun in which he was denounced by several members of Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU). Collum has come under fire after he sent an email critical of CGSU to several hundred of his fellow faculty members that was subsequently leaked. In the Daily Sun article, CGSU member Vera Khovanskaya, who posted Collum’s email on Twitter, said she and her fellow graduate students were appalled by Collum’s views on the subject. Although there was speculation (on the part of CGSU) that Collum had violated an agreement between the University and CGSU, Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth cleared Collum of all charges, saying “Cornell, including Counsel’s office, has investigated and carefully reviewed the emails that CGSU/AFT/NYSUT allege violate the May ’16 Agreement, and does not believe that any violations whatsoever have occurred.” The following is an interview with Collum regarding his views on CGSU, as well as its members’ tactics.

Isaac Schorr: Why do you oppose CGSU?

Dave Collum: I don’t oppose CGSU per se. I think, for example, that compared with previous unionization efforts by the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) CGSU is a much more logical fit. I do have some issues with their tactics, however, eliciting almost paradoxical mixed emotions. Taking a hint from previous failed efforts to unionize, the national organization overseeing CGSU has designed a remarkably effective strategy to win. In that sense, whoever is in charge is doing a great job. On the other hand, I don’t think anybody could possibly conclude that their strategy is guided by the goal of having open debate with consideration of all sides of the issue. To the contrary, CGSU has masterfully controlled almost 100% of the information flow to the point that students asked to vote are missing some really critical data. The question of why I am not a big fan of graduate student unions in a more general sense is really a different topic altogether that probably needs to cordoned off by a different question.

IS: Would you say that their indifference/opposition toward open debate is evident in CGSU member Vera Khovanskaya’s “appalled” reaction to your leaked email? If they had a truly strong case, wouldn’t they welcome a free exchange of ideas?

DC: I think that Vera’s response shouldn’t be underestimated for its tactical content. If they can stop me from speaking openly to my colleagues about my concerns through such pushback then one of the very few openly detracting faculty members can be quieted. She threw out a lot of ideas not knowing what would stick or resonate with the readers. The somewhat humorous part is that if CGSU had simply let the email fall on what may be deaf ears of my colleagues, some of my concerns about unionization would have gone quietly into the night. As it stands, one senses maybe the ruckus has stirred up discussion (at least in my department). I’m getting a few emails as you can imagine, and, of course, now you and I are doing an interview that never would have transpired. Most of Vera’s complaints about inappropriateness of my despised email are poorly founded. Cornell authorities were interested in one question: did I send it to graduate students? To that question I can say definitively no. The emails went out to Directors of Graduate Studies, Department Chairs, and Department heads–several hundred colleagues in all. They were blind copied out of the general principles of email etiquette: you never show addresses on such a mass mailing like that. Again, on a humorous note, one of my colleagues, presumably sympathetic to the union, did break the rules by passing it to a graduate student.

Furthermore, I think that CGSU’s distaste for open debate is evident in their refusal to participate in the open debates available to them. The opposition group, AtWhatCost, has requested on multiple occasions to have the union join them in open discussions with precisely zero luck. As I am told, the invitation goes out, the union says no, and the AtWhatCost folks go to an information session without them (which, as you could imagine is like going to a baseball game with only one team on the field). The union then follows up several days later with a discussion at that very same department. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to spot the pattern and see the potential for disinformation. The most recent case actually occurred today. The university tried to set up such a session in a big lecture hall to air differences. The union was projected to be a no-show, but an email from a colleague revealed they showed up. I would have gone if I had known this, except my now-polarizing role would make this a very bad idea. I suspect that the AtWhatCost folks might be growing weary of this Kabuki theater right about now. As to why the union has opposed open debate, I imagine some of the niggling details that are being omitted might become uncomfortably visible. They also know that wide open public debate and a high (89%) voter turnout dozen years ago led to a devastating 2:1 defeat of the UAW.

IS: What tactics in Ms. Khovanskaya’s comments would you like to call attention to? Are you surprised that the colleague who did break the rules is not being condemned? Do you think that this demonstrates that CGSU was not worried about rule-breaking, but rather, the fact that you had a dissenting opinion?

DC: Well, I guess the notion that I am afraid of the union because I beat my students like rented mules (my phrase, not hers) seems wide of the mark. But this is just a war of words at this point. In her defense, there are advisors who could use some serious attitude adjustments, but that is an academic issue rather than a union issue. As a former Director of Graduate Study, associate chair, current chair, and department old man, I have intervened a few times to resolve student-advisor disagreements. Also, the special committee (three faculty) are explicitly charged with this task.

As to somebody breaking the rules by passing an email to a student, it was a trivial infraction that should not cause anybody grief. When I sent the email, I included ILR chairs and Directors of Graduate Study. I would have been shocked if the union took more than five minutes to get a copy. It’s neither my concern nor my problem.

IS: Moving past the Daily Sun article and CGSU’s tactics, can you explain your reservations regarding graduate student unions in general, and CGSU specifically?

DC: I do not believe such a heterogenous group—graduate students in greater than 100 departments spanning unimaginably broad disciplines—is a logical group to unionize. Engineers, plant biologists, and sociologists have vastly different cultures, finances, and operating procedures. Any move toward a one-size-fits-all model—the natural homogenization brought on by unionization—will introduce inefficiencies in the least and grotesque distortions if taken to excess. What happens if the market-driven compensation required to be competitive in one discipline is unaffordable to another? What happens if there is a strike the week before classes? To a young activist that may be an appealing idea. A slightly more seasoned eye sees the potential for catastrophic outcomes.

The really big issue for me, however, is almost primal: once you have a union you will never get rid of it. There are theoretical mechanisms by which a union can be disbanded just as there are rules that offer a route for me to become Secretary of State. Neither will happen in my lifetime. Operationally, the students are being asked to introduce a complex institution that will impact graduate students at Cornell for generations. This is a momentous decision. Promises that the union wouldn’t do this or that are specious: once it is here we will find out what the union will and will not do. I’ve got to wonder if the young woman I once saw with a musical score across her abdomen looked out far enough to imagine what it will look like after child rearing, some weight gain, and a few wrinkles. The answer is she didn’t as evidenced by the tattoo.

Do the students understand the dues deducted from their paychecks to get a PhD? I heard from a colleague that his students didn’t realize there would be dues. (I would call that gap appalling on their part.) My crudest estimate is that dues paid during a typical PhD could exceed of $4000, but hard numbers are not being provided by CGSU for obvious reasons. Do the students really believe such perks as dental insurance will be a panacea? I am offered it, and I am not interested despite being at an age where dental problems accelerate. Dental plans are expensive, and the compensation is inadequate. This hasn’t stopped the union from planting this pipe dream into the community’s collective consciousness.

Students should ask where all the money will go. CGSU will get some but a lot will head off to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Crude estimates put the exodus at over a million dollars a year heading off never to be seen again in Ithaca. Multiply that times 200 PhD-granting institutions, and you get a plot-thickening $200 million dollar annual revenue stream flowing in perpetuity. That is the story that is not being told.

When I hear students using such deep logic as “why not” or “maybe I’ll benefit somehow” or, I am told, “I am fine but I am sure others need protection” my advice to them is please look to the future consequences (and stay away from tattoo parlors.)

IS: If I were to play the part of CGSU advocate, I might counter that you are underestimating and insulting graduate students by suggesting that they are infantile whiners and not graduate students at an Ivy League institution. Furthermore, I might argue that as it stands, Cornell does not provide ample stipends to its graduate students (especially those with families), does not provide injured graduate students workers’ compensation except for under a “narrow range of circumstances”, and is able to terminate graduate student funding without prior warning. How would you respond?

DC: I would argue most of that is generally wrong, although the occasional anecdote often lacking in critical details surfaces. One of our students had a lab accident years ago (long before the new-era activism), and the student got workman’s comp (although possibly by another name.) Risk of the occasional rabble rousing by students challenges Cornell to tighten up their protocols. My experience is they do so aggressively.

I can’t speak for >100 departments, but I know for a fact that chemistry cannot just terminate support: we have a legally binding promise to provide financial support in our letter, contingent upon making satisfactory progress to the PhD. In fact, we recently had a case in which a chemistry graduate student who years earlier joined another department. Complexity arose when poor performance collided with the advisor taking a position in another school. There was a debate about who was responsible for what, but the graduate school was all over the problem, ensuring that the outcome was equitable.

Reference to “whiny” was specific to the union organizers and possibly a poor choice of words. Recall that I was speaking with a reporter who appeared to be setting me up for a severe beating. (I think she was quite fair in the end.) The responses of union organizers are always visceral—so shrill that dogs start barking. I keep giving them credit for being tactical. Maybe they just react to challenges that way. I’ll never know.

Cornell’s stipends are huge when adjusted for cost of living compared to peer institutions in cities and even non-cities. Inflation-adjusted stipends at Stanford, for an extreme example, come in around $8000. (That’s an AtWhatCost number, not mine.) My 50-year-old colleague languished in poverty at Stanford as a postdoc. Ithaca is an amazingly benign place to set up a reasonable lifestyle on a graduate student stipend. But let’s unwrap this a little more: students are given tuition and are paid to go to school. Where else in academia do you get such an amazing opportunity? Medical school? Business school? Law school? It has been my unshaken view since the day I began grad school in 1977 at Columbia on a $4400-per-year stipend that the opportunity is extraordinary. I earned enough to eat, sleep in a warm bed, and get an otherwise free ride leading to a magnificent job at Cornell. I was so grateful.

IS: Do you see any legitimate problems with the way graduate students are treated by Cornell? If so, and if not by way of a union, how do you think these issues can be best addressed?

DC: I hear anecdotes that, as noted above, often come with incomplete details. I do not see widespread abuse. With that said, I cannot profess to be abreast of all activities within the university. I can, however, profess to have found our administration to be a thoughtful, sincere group. Michael Kotlikoff is arguably my favorite provost in over 38 years. I am a huge fan of Gretchen Ritter, Dean of Arts and Sciences. I see not a shred of evidence that they would knowingly tolerate mistreatment of graduate students. An intrepid journalist could do some digging and find out that there are generations of Cornellians in my family tree (six in total). On my wife’s side, the lineage is profound (but not my business to elaborate.) We bleed Cornell Red in my house. We do what is best for Cornell.

IS: Well thank you so much for your time Professor Collum, any parting thoughts on this or any other issue here at Cornell?

DC: Vote early and vote often. (Sorry CGSU: that was just a joke, not a breach of labor laws.) On a serious note, the union organizers and I probably agree on one thing: this is a profoundly and historically important moment in Cornell’s history. Please vote and do so thoughtfully.

6 Comments on The Case Against CGSU: An Interview with Professor Dave Collum

  1. Dave, a great letter for a great, in my experience, set of Graduate Students.

  2. I feel so moved about what he said “An intrepid journalist could do some digging and find out that there are generations of Cornellians in my family tree (six in total). On my wife’s side, the lineage is profound (but not my business to elaborate.) We bleed Cornell Red in my house. We do what is best for Cornell.”
    As far as I know, Dave’s wife is related to the founder of Cornell, Ezra Cornell. You’re the hero Dave!

  3. If anyone is interested, I wrote a post on my blog where I argue that 1) CGSU is making the case in favor of unionization dishonestly by cherry-picking the evidence to support their claims that students would benefit from it, 2) the groups to which CGSU is affiliated and to which most of our dues would go if we vote in favor of unionization are deeply immoral organizations that have a negative effect on education in the US and we should not fund them with dues taken from our wages and 3) even if people disagree with me about that, it’s wrong to use the law to force your colleagues to pay dues to organizations they don’t want to be associated with. Please share it as widely as possible if you think it’s interesting.

  4. What the hell is this dude’s problem with tattoos?

  5. “I’ve got to wonder if the young woman I once saw with a musical score across her abdomen looked out far enough to imagine what it will look like after child rearing, some weight gain, and a few wrinkles. The answer is she didn’t as evidenced by the tattoo.” That’s a winner of an argument right there. Misogyny anyone?

  6. “I do not believe such a heterogenous group—graduate students in greater than 100 departments spanning unimaginably broad disciplines—is a logical group to unionize. Engineers, plant biologists, and sociologists have vastly different cultures, finances, and operating procedures.”

    Unions work with multiple disciplines, missions, skills, and abilities within a bargaining unit all of the time. Examples are easy to find with a person who has Dr. Collum’s research experience and is preparing for an interview, but for a quick example, please see AFGE, the AFL-CIO union which represents 110,000 federal employees which include, “Food inspectors, nurses, correctional officers, lawyers, police officers, census workers, scientists, doctors, park rangers, border patrol agents, transportation security officers, mechanics, computer programmers, and more.”
    I was once a member of AFGE in a local which included VA doctors and support staff, DoD scientists and linguists, CIA employees, librarians and archivists, landscapers, Chinese translators, cooks, investigators, and many more professions. I would hope that a eminent university could figure out a way of working with the union of a rather narrowly proscribed occupation.
    (https://www.afge.org/about-us/afge-at-a-glance/)

    “Do the students understand the dues deducted from their paychecks to get a PhD?”

    Is Dr. Collum suggesting that PhD students at Cornell are incapable of understanding they will pay union dues if they join a union? That they cannot read the clearly written FAQ section of the Cornell GSU website: https://cornellgsu.org/faq/#what.dues?
    Union dues are like a fusion of insurance premiums and gym fees– they protect you against possible catastrophe while improving and safeguarding your current well being.

    Dr. Collum does the faculty and administration of Cornell no favors in this interview.
    As pointed out above, he engages in sexism.
    His glib dismissal of student complaints because he admires the current provost is illogical, which would be obvious if Dr. Collum understood how unions function. This is especially true if Dr.Collum’s description of the breadth and diversity of the potential bargaining unit is accurate, as unions provide a structure for fairly addressing individual grievances within a diverse and broad population.
    And Dr.Collum embraces a questionable justification for his authority regarding the experience of Cornell graduate students: that his family has been fortunate to have the means to attend Cornell for generations likely extending back before the admission of women in 1870 and the admission of a Black student in 1869. Being invested in the good fortune of Cornell does not give rise to understanding the current graduate student experience.

    Disclosure: I do not work at Cornell. I do work at a different university.

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