A Cornell University senior delivered her honors thesis in her underwear after her professor allegedly questioned her attire during a trial run earlier in the week.
The student, Letitia Chai, was wearing a blue button down shirt and cut-off jean shorts when her professor challenged her fashion choice.
“The first thing that the professor said to me was ‘is that really what you would wear?’” Chai told the Cornell Sun. “I think that I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know how to respond.”
Professor Rebekah Maggor, who teaches the Wednesday section of PMA 3815 Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life, allegedly told Chai that her shorts were “too short” and that she was making a “statement” with her attire.
According to its syllabus, the class is not bound by an official dress code. Students can “wear clothes and footwear that are comfortable” that allow “a free range of movement.”
But for performances, Maggor encourages students to “dress appropriately for the persona” to present. This means putting fashion in context — what one wears to a job interview and what one wears to a concert may be two different things.
“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” the professor told the Cornell Sun. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”
Yet what came from Chai’s trial presentation on rehabilitation for displaced people and refugees was a heated discussion on acceptable appearance. For one, a male international student commented that she had a “moral obligation” to dress conservatively for her audience.
Chai eventually walked out of the room while two students followed to comfort her.
“I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency,” she said, recalling that Maggor also warned that she would attract “men’s attention” away from her speech’s content.
Maggor reportedly left the theater and reached Chai later. She then asked her student what her mother would think of her clothing choice.
“My mom is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor. She’s fine with my shorts,” Chai answered.
When asked what she planned to do next, she replied, “I’m going to give the best damn speech of my life.”
Chai returned to the theater, but this time, she stripped down to her bra and underwear and invited others to follow through. More than two dozen reportedly accepted and stripped down to their bras and boxers.
Eleven of the 14 students in Maggor’s class said that she “wholeheartedly agreed that her initial comment was about professionalism rather than the ‘male gaze’ mentioned in the student discussion.”
They added that the professor “apologized [to the class] for her choice of words” and acknowledged that “the notion of ‘short shorts’ on women carries a lot of cultural and political baggage.”
“Unfortunately, because Letitia was not in the room, she was not able to hear these comments, and we believe this contributed to the miscommunication,” the students said in their joint statement.
Chai, whose performance was livestreamed on Facebook, hosted an informal discussion on diversity methods and inclusion training for faculty after her presentation.
In the wake of the controversy, netizens chimed in:
Images via FaceBook / LChai Thesis