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Wednesday, December 07, 2022

GAU calls for investigation following student death

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UF’s Graduate Assistants United has requested an investigation by UF looking into the death of Huixiang Chen, an international UF doctoral candidate who was found dead on campus in Benton Hall after taking his own life last month. 

Graduate Assistants United, a labor union that represents teaching assistants, research assistants and graduate student instructors, believes UF needs to look into the circumstances that led up to Chen’s death after speaking to Chen’s friends about the things he was struggling with, said Bobby Mermer, the union’s co-president.

UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said in a statement to The Alligator that UF began to review Chen’s death since the body was discovered on June 14. 

“We are deeply saddened by his loss,” Orlando said. “We hold our faculty members to the very highest standards of integrity, honesty, ethics and proper conduct toward and treatment of students.”

The union believes the university’s neglect for Chen’s mental health compounded with alleged academic misconduct and fraud by Chen’s advisor, Tao Li, may have been major contributing factors to Chen’s decision to take his life, Mermer said. 

Mermer said he believes Li prioritized his own research and academic reputation over Chen’s mental well-being.

In a statement to The Alligator, Li's attorney, Ron Kozlowski, said that Li is extremely sad about what happened and he hopes that everything can be resolved.
"On the personal side, this is extremely sad and tragic. On the professional side, Dr. Li has not done anything wrong and he welcomes the university's investigation," Kozlowski said. 

In Mermer’s three years working at GAU, the organization has received multiple anonymous tips from international graduate students about mental health neglect and abusive behavior by some of the faculty at UF, he said. 

“There’s a pattern of exploitation and abuse of international graduate assistants and we thought it was time to make this public,” Mermer said.

He said he believes graduate assistants have been under more pressure to complete their degrees quickly because UF is prioritizing its ranking in the U.S. News & World Report over the well-being of its students and faculty.

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Mermer said the GAU is still waiting for a statement from UF regarding the matter.

The UF Counseling and Wellness Center has a variety of resources to help students struggling with mental health. Appointments are available during their on-campus hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. They can also be reached by phone at (352) 392-1575.

The number for the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1 (800) 273-8255.

Update: This story has been updated with a comment from Tao Li's attorney.

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