A female student at Cornell University stripped down to her underwear—twice—before presenting her senior thesis to professors and other students.
The student was attempting to strike a blow against the patriarchy, repudiating her media arts professor's advice to dress up for the presentation. Yet I can't help but wonder: On what planet is this not a violation of Title IX, the federal anti-harassment statute that so many college administrators cite when cracking down on problematic, sexually charged behavior?
The student, Letitia Chai, was practicing her presentation in class while wearing cutoff jean shorts. That outfit, The Cornell Daily Sun reports, drew a rebuke from professor Rebekah Maggor, who asked, "Is that really what you would wear?"
"I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress," Maggor later clarified in an email to the Sun. "I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions." Indeed, the syllabus warns students to "dress appropriately for the persona" they plan to present.
Maggor apologized for the remark anyway, after Chai stormed out of the class. She eventually returned, stripped down to her underwear, and continued with the presentation.
Chai stripped again during her actual senior thesis presentation, in front of students and professors. She said she "stood in solidarity with people who have been asked to 'question themselves' based on others' perception of their appearances," according to the Sun. She asked the audience to join her—and some removed articles of clothing. Afterward, she led a roundtable discussion about diversity and inclusion.
Most of the students who had been in attendance during the initial incident collaborated on a document exonerating the professor, Maggor, of wrongdoing. "We write this letter because we feel it is our duty to give a fairer representation of our professor than what was portrayed," they wrote. "We do acknowledge that our professor could have been more conscious and careful of word choice when discussing such sensitive topics. However, she has openly recognized this and apologized on more than one occasion. As a professor, she is incredibly open to criticism and, following the incident, listened to what her students had to say regarding her role in what occurred."
Here's a question: Is this a Title IX case in the making? The federal statute dealing with sexual misconduct has often been used as a weapon to police uncomfortable expression. Overzealous compliance with the Obama-era Education Department's broad interpretation of Title IX has prompted campus authorities to discourage gendered salutations, investigate professors for writing controversial essays, and give failing grades to students who made harmless comments. One can easily imagine administrators going after a student who not only took off her clothes in class but encouraged others to do the same.
I asked Cornell's Title IX office if Chai's behavior had raised red flags, or whether someone would need to file a complaint first. "The Office of the Title IX Coordinator does not opine on whether an individual's reported conduct 'could...be a Title IX infraction on its own,'" spokesperson Kareem Peat told me. "If you would like to report an incident to the Office of the Title IX Coordinator, you may do so at https://biasconcerns.cornell.edu/."
But according to the Sun, the Title IX office did contact Chai. "Chai said that although the Title IX office had contacted her regarding the incident," the paper reports, "she is not actively pursuing a case at present." This makes it sound like she was approached as a possible victim of sexual harassment, rather than a perpetrator—which suggests that Title IX officials think a professor questioning a student's appearance is a more serious matter than a student disrobing in front of her classmates.
Photo Credit: Screenshot via Letitia Chai