Cornell Student Strips Down to Underwear During Thesis Defense to Protest Professor’s Clothing Advice

A senior at Cornell University stripped down to her underwear during her thesis defense last week, after her professor criticized her clothing during a previous class session.

The student, Letitia Chai, delivered her honors thesis defense in her underwear last week in protest over her professor’s remark about the unprofessionalism of her denim shorts. During a trial run of her thesis presentation, Chai’s professor, Rebekah Maggor, made a comment about Chai’s outfit. Maggor allegedly told Chai that her shorts were “too short” and that she was making a “statement” with the clothes she was wearing.

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Chai also claims that Maggor, whose expertise is in theater and the arts, told her that her outfit would distract males in the classroom. However, in a letter published by her peers, students from the class explain that Chai was misrepresenting her exchange with the professor. According to the students, Maggor’s comment was primarily meant to highlight the importance of professional attire in public speaking situations.

Letitia stood up to give her speech. Before she began, our professor asked Letitia if she would wear “those shorts” to her actual presentation on Saturday. Our professor regularly asks all of the students, male and female, such questions to clarify appropriate attire for public speaking. 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.

The thesis, which was titled “Re-Imagining the Refugee-Host Country Relationship: Tibetans and India,” was given on Saturday by Chai to a room of 44 students. Of the 44 students in the classroom, 28 students also stripped down to their underwear in protest.

In an email to the Cornell University student newspaper, Maggor explained that she did not tell Chai what to wear, but that she encourages students to dress professionally. “I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Maggor said. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.”