Nation & World

Cornell professor questioned a student's shorts. So she gave her thesis in underwear

Cornell University senior Letitia Chai gave her honors thesis in front of a room of fellow students on Saturday after she stripped down to her underwear.

It wasn't a surprise to anyone in the room or probably most of the people watching on Facebook Live. They knew why Chai took off her clothes because she had used social media to ask other students to join her in disrobing as a sign of protest.

Chai was angry, and in tears, as she took off her clothes.

Earlier in the week, during a trial run for her presentation, a professor questioned her about the shorts she was wearing in front of the other students in the room.

“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘Is that really what you would wear?’ ” Chai told The Cornell Daily Sun.

She told the student newspaper she was wearing cutoff jean shorts and a long-sleeved button-down shirt.

“I think that I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know how to respond,” Chai said.

Chai alleged that Rebekah Maggor, an assistant professor in the performing and media arts department, told her that her shorts were "too short" and that Chai would be making a "statement" with her clothes during her presentation.

She also, allegedly, told Chai she would attract "men's attention" away from her presentation with the way she was dressed.

When a male international student in the class spoke up to say a speaker has a "moral obligation" to dress conservatively for the audience during a thesis presentation, Chai left the room.

Maggor later told the student newspaper in an email that she does not tell her students what to wear, "nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress. I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”

According to The College Fix, the syllabus for Maggor's public speaking course warns students that their attire will be scrutinized. Students are told to wear clothes and footwear that are comfortable and allow free range of movement. They are told to dress appropriately for the "persona" they will present.

After the incident, Chai wrote about it in a Facebook post, now deleted. She reportedly didn't mention the professor by name and invited the public to attend her thesis presentation on Saturday.

After she went public, some of the other students in the room at the time released a written statement describing their version of what had happened, accusing Chai of unfairly representing the professor's words and actions.

"Our intention in writing this letter is in no way to invalidate any of Letitia’s experience," they wrote. "We strongly support and identify with Letitia’s fight for equality in the treatment of all people, regardless of race, gender, color, creed, sexuality, or appearance. ...

"However, we feel it is important and our obligation to share our impression of Wednesday’s events to provide a fair representation of the situation."

They wrote that before Chai began her presentation Maggor asked her whether she would wear "those shorts" to the actual presentation.

"Our professor regularly asks all of the students, male and female, such questions to clarify appropriate attire for public speaking," the students wrote. "Our professor went on to say that what you wear and how you present yourself make a statement.

"She noted that if you were to wear jean shorts to your thesis presentation, that is a statement. Her focus on attire was a means of noting the importance of professionalism in certain public speaking situations."

They wrote that Maggor "acknowledged the discomfort of speaking overtly about attire and perception, especially for women, and encouraged us to share our thoughts and opinions."

Then people began to chime in.

"Letitia became visibly upset by our professor’s earlier comments, and after one male international student’s comment (mentioned in her post), she left the room," the students wrote.

"Tensions were high, and neither our professor nor Letitia was able to adequately defend her position. After Letitia left, our professor listened and agreed with many of the students' comments and criticisms.

Chai did not hear that part of the discussion because she'd left the room, the students noted, "and we believe this contributed to the miscommunication."

They also noted that they do not know what Maggor, who left the room to speak to Chai, said to her.

According to Chai, the situation got worse because Maggor allegedly asked what her mother would think of Chai’s clothing decision, the told the Sun.

“My mom is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor," Chai said she told Maggor. "She’s fine with my shorts.”

When Chai walked into the room to give her presentation on Saturday she wore the same clothes that started the dust-up earlier in the week.

The presentation was livestreamed on Facebook.

"Mom and dad, hello," Chai said at the beginning. "I know it's late in Korea so thank you for staying up for this."

"On Wednesday I sent out a plea for solidarity, solidarity with individuals like myself who have been asked to question ourselves, specifically our appearance for the comfort of others.

"The only question that this has led me to ask is how much longer we need to put up with this nonsense?"

She said she had received a "massive amount of messages" from people sharing stories of being put down and made "to feel last."

"I'm more than a woman. I am more than Letitia Chai," she said as she pulled her clothes off.

"I am a human being and I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this next step, or rather this next strip, in our movement. and to join me in revealing to each other and to seeing each other for who we truly are, members of the human race."

Then she whispered, "Strip everybody."

According to the student newspaper, about half the people in the room did.

"I hope this is only the beginning of a conversation that I did not think that we still had to have, but we do and we are here to make it continue."

Then she began her thesis on rehabilitation for displaced people and refugees.