A Death, a Suspension

University of Florida professor facing blame in a student's suicide is placed on leave. Case recalls abuse of graduate students elsewhere.

March 3, 2021
 
Huixiang Chen

The University of Florida put a professor of computer engineering on leave last month amid a lengthy investigation into the suicide of one of his graduate students.

Publicly, the university has said little about the case. The professor, Tao Li, did not respond to a request for comment but has previously denied any involvement in the student’s death. But friends of the late Ph.D. candidate, Huixiang Chen, have said Li pressured, threatened and otherwise mistreated him.

A Feb. 15 suspension letter to Li from his department chair says he is prohibited from engaging in “any activity that involves any aspect of your position, including business travel, consultation with faculty, staff or students.” Li may not be physically present on campus for “any reason” during his suspension. He must also refrain from having any contact with faculty, staff or students “by any means,” including phone calls, texts and emails, unless first obtaining explicit permission from the university.

The letter, first obtained through an open records request by WUFT-FM, also commands Li to cooperate with all ongoing investigations or be terminated immediately.

Feeling Like There’s No Way Out

Chen, an international student from China, died on campus in June 2019. Soon after, someone called “Huixiang Voice” published a post on Medium suggesting that Li was at fault. The post quoted a note that Chen allegedly sent friends and colleagues about his state of mind. He said that he’d submitted a conference paper for the 2019 International Symposium on Computer Architecture “in a very short time and it was submitted and accepted very quickly,” due in part of Li’s “networking” and Li having friends among the reviewers.

Even though it was accepted, Chen said the paper suffered from “very severe issues: the design doesn’t make any sense and the reviewers also pay no attention to it.”

Ahead of the actual conference, Chen said he was reworking the paper and making up for missing experiments. Yet “During those experiments, I found that the phenomenon of the experiments and the design was different from what was claimed before, which made this paper doesn’t make any sense [sic] from title to characterization and to design.”

Chen said Li told him to fix the paper himself, and, “Until today I am still unable to patch up any of those issues. These issues are too obvious which can be easily caught by any experts of accelerator. I have no words to comment that Dr. Li acquiesced to the data which makes no sense.”

Chen said he couldn’t see any way out of his predicament: “I hope you can keep simple and stay honest in this society. I will bless you in another world.”

The Medium post included other screenshots of messages that Chen allegedly sent friends before his death, shedding more light on his relationship with Li.

“I feel my mentor has no academic integrity,” Chen wrote, according to the screenshots. “I feel disgusting. I really want to die when patching up this paper. I am doing my best.”

Apparently referring to Li, Chen also wrote, “He pushed me to fake, if I can’t publish the paper before deadline. I have no regrets. At least I have done my best.”

Later, Chen texted, “I had a fight with him. And the police almost come. He refused to withdraw the paper resolutely.”

And, later, “My mentor’s words are, if I destroy his reputation he will kill me. He said this is his bottom line.”

‘Clear and Convincing Evidence’

The University of Florida began to investigate these allegations, as did the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional society. In a February statement, the groups said that they initially found no evidence of wrongdoing with respect to the conference paper, based on the evidence available to them at the time. Additional information, including a new witness, came to light in early 2020, however, the groups said. A more thorough investigation based on this new information determined “clear and convincing evidence that several individuals implicated in the investigation had intentionally breached the peer review process for ISCA '19 by repeatedly sharing reviewers’ names and reviewer scores connected with submissions.” The unnamed individuals further “colluded in supporting a submission by asking other individuals to draft messages to be posted in the conference’s review system.”

Crucially, with respect to Chen and Li, the associations found “clear and convincing evidence that an ISCA '19 author had coerced a co-author to proceed with a submission despite that co-author’s repeatedly-expressed concerns about the correctness of the results reported in the work.”

Disciplinary action was taken, in some cases appealed and ultimately upheld, the groups said. “ACM’s Publications Board has assessed penalties ranging from warning letters to a 15-year ban on participation in any ACM publication or reviewing activities,” the statement says. “Furthermore, some individuals are now being investigated by IEEE as well as ACM’s ethics committee for additional violations.”

Florida took action against Li days after the findings were published.

WUFT-FM reported that Li previously corresponded via email with reporters as part of a five-month investigation into Chen’s death by Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. In some of those emails, Li reportedly accused Chen’s friends of “intensively and maliciously spreading such false statements and misleading information over the internet to attack me and my family.”

Li reportedly said he promised to make his accusers “pay for what they did,” saying he’d met with “authorized personnel who are involved with the investigation and provided both witnesses and evidences to disprove those fake/false allegations on me.”

WUFT-FM also interviewed friends of Chen’s who corroborated the allegations on Medium. Several witnesses, including an administrative assistant, said they’d hearing screaming in Chinese and items crashing to the floor during a closed-door meeting between Chen and Li in Li’s office days ahead of Chen’s death.

Chen, who came to Gainesville in 2013, reportedly told friends that Li also treated him like a “personal secretary." He reportedly said that Li asked him to drive his wife and father-in-law around and run errands unrelated to his studies.

Students at Risk

This kind of behavior, while shocking, is not unprecedented. Many graduate students complain that their advisers treat them unprofessionally and that they have little recourse because the mentor has so much power -- in money, resources, connections and reputation -- over the mentee in the traditional academic apprenticeship model.

In another tragedy, John Brady, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, died by suicide in 2016 after trying to sound the alarm on his lab’s toxic leader. An internal report commissioned after Brady’s death found that the professor, Akbar Sayeed, regularly cursed at students, threatened to “fire” them and called them “monkeys,” “babies,” “dumb asses” and “liars.” Sayeed was also found to have made “ambiguous physical threats” and “limited academic goals and achievements of several students and caused emotional distress.”

Sayeed was suspended for two years, but the Wisconsin-State Journal found that Madison had failed to promptly inform the National Science Foundation about the punishment, enabling him to actually work at the NSF during his leave. Sayeed has apologized for his behavior.

International students, whose legal status is this country is wrapped up in their performance as students, and who may have different cultural perspectives on mental health, may be particularly vulnerable to predatory faculty members.

In 2018, several students from India accused Ashim Mitra, a now-former professor of pharmacy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, of requiring them to do housework for him -- and then threatening their place at the university if they refused. In 2019, UMKC university settled with a second professor, Mridul Mukherji, who said he’d complained about what Mitra was doing but was retaliated against instead of taken seriously.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is currently facing a trafficking lawsuit filed by two female students from China. The women previously accused Gary Gang Xu, a now-former professor of art history, of bullying and sexual misconduct, and of targeting women from China in particular. Xu, who was suspended in 2016 and resigned in 2018, denied the allegations and is countersuing his accusers.

The women allege that they tried to alert the university to what was happening but that Illinois tried to keep it quiet so as not to damage its reputation among other current and potential Chinese students. UIUC didn't comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement that "issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment threaten every aspect of our university missions and they inflict personal and professional harm on members of our community." The university "investigates and takes appropriate action whenever conduct is reported that may jeopardize or impact the safety or security of our students or others."

The University of Florida did not respond to a request for further details about the Li case.

In the wake of Brady’s death, Madison made numerous changes to better protect students, including boosting faculty and staff training on appropriate workplace behavior and building awareness of mental health resources. The department of electrical and computer engineering in particular appointed faculty members to serve as primary points of contact for confidential support, advocacy and resource referral, along with grievance reporting and problem resolution. The program is also monitoring turnover in research groups and working to build community among graduate students.

Still, many critics of graduate education say students remain at risk of toxic advisers as long their academic success remains so dependent on a single adviser. Groups such as the Modern Language Association have recommended adopting a collaborative or “networked” advising model instead, along with increased faculty “bystander responsibility.”

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