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Cornell student protests 'systematic oppression' by presenting her senior thesis in her underwear

Cornell University student Letitia Chai wore only her underwear during a presentation of her thesis in protest of a college professor who questioned her choice of clothing. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

Cornell University student Letitia Chai protested something her professor said about her appearance by wearing nothing but a bra and underwear during a presentation of her college scholar senior thesis on campus.

Twenty-eight of the 44 students in attendance on Saturday also removed their clothes to support Chai’s protest, the Cornell Daily Sun, the campus student newspaper, reported.

Chai appeared angry and was in tears as she disrobed, according to published reports. She had used social media to ask other students to join her. The presentation was also livestreamed on her Facebook page.

What happened?

Chai’s professor allegedly questioned the young woman’s choice of clothing when she showed up to class on Wednesday wearing a button-down blue shirt and cutoff jean shorts, according to the Sun.

Chai said the professor asked her if that's what she would really wear as she began her presentation for a class called Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life. Her presentation was on rehabilitation for displaced people and refugees.

Rebekah Maggor, a performing and media arts professor, allegedly told Chai her shorts were “too short” and she was making a statement with her wardrobe choice. The course does not have a formal dress code but asks students to “dress appropriately for the persona [they] will present, the Sun reported.

“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Maggor wrote in a statement to the Sun. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”

Maggor added that a student in another class was asked to remove a cap from his head to comply with the dress code.

After hearing what Maggor said, Chai told the Sun: “telling someone to take their cap off is not the same thing as telling a girl her shorts are too short.”

Chai also told the student paper that Maggor allegedly said the shorts would be a distraction for men listening to her presentation.

“I am not responsible for anyone’s attention because we are capable of thinking for ourselves and we have agency,” Chai said.

A male student in the class reportedly commented that Chai had a “moral obligation” to dress conservatively for the presentation. At that point, Chai left the classroom and two students followed her to comfort her, according to reports.

What did other students say?

Eleven of the total 14 students in that class wrote a joint statement to the Sun saying they support Chai’s protest, but did not agree with her public account of the incident.

“The majority of us are students of color, from multiethnic backgrounds, who very much relate to Letitia’s frustration with systemic oppression that is part of the fabric of this country,” the statement read. “We do not want to discredit [Letitia’s] narrative.”

The students defended the professor, saying she has a sincere desire to encourage diversity and inclusion.

“[Maggor] is a gift to Cornell,” the statement read, stating that the students felt Chai’s post did not “adequately represent [Maggor’s] past and continued advocacy for women and minorities” and that Maggor had “apologized on more than one occasion.”

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