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Thursday, June 24, 2021

UF community honors Huixiang Chen at a vigil

More than 30 people gathered to honor life of international graduate student Thursday

Two attendees stand in front of Tigert Hall at UF during a vigil on Thursday, April 1 honoring the life of international graduate student Huixiang Chen, who died by suicide in 2019. UF's Graduate Assistants United organized the event to express frustrations over abusive graduate student-mentor relationships.
Two attendees stand in front of Tigert Hall at UF during a vigil on Thursday, April 1 honoring the life of international graduate student Huixiang Chen, who died by suicide in 2019. UF's Graduate Assistants United organized the event to express frustrations over abusive graduate student-mentor relationships.

More than 30 people marched from Norman Field to Tigert Hall as the sun set Thursday with a banner that read “End Workplace Exploitation For All.”

Nearly a year and a half after international UF doctoral candidate Huixiang Chen died by suicide in his on-campus lab, UF’s Graduate Assistants United held a vigil in front of Tigert Hall to honor his life. Chen’s body was discovered in Benton Hall June 14, 2019. 

The 30-year-old’s death has led to accusations against his adviser, engineering professor Tao Li, regarding abusive behavior and academic misconduct. UF said it has been investigating the case since July 2019.

Graduate Assistants United, a labor union for UF’s graduate employees, received Facebook messages from Chen’s friends, who were worried about his safety, prior to his death. In Chen’s suicide note, which was published following his death, he wrote that a research paper he co-authored with Li contained inaccurate results and that his career would be impacted if it were published.

Li pressured Chen to proceed with the publication anyway, placing immense stress on Chen, according to the note.

UF placed Li on paid leave leave Feb. 15, according to a letter obtained by WUFT news. He is prohibited from conducting UF-related work, visiting campus and talking to UF students or faculty; however, he remains employed at UF, receiving an annual salary of $153,238, according to UF’s 2020 fiscal analysis.

Li was placed on leave following an independent investigation conducted jointly by the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. The exact reason why he was placed on leave is still unclear. When asked to clarify why the university placed him on leave, UF spokesperson Hessy Fernandez wrote in an email that UF does not discuss ongoing investigations.

The vigil was partly an expression of frustration at the abusive behavior some graduate students face from their mentors. A group of about 34 people attended the vigil held in front of Tigert Hall, UF’s administration building. 

They left a framed picture of Chen along with notes to the university administration on the steps of the building’s entrance conveying their feelings about Chen’s ongoing case.

GAU President Bobby Mermer read four demands for UF regarding its handling of the investigation on the steps of Tigert Hall. The demands included releasing a target date for the conclusion of the investigation, the release of the company names conducting the investigation, a statement detailing the preliminary findings so far and confirmation that results will be released when the investigation ends. 

In November, GAU gained the power to trigger a university investigation based on anonymous complaints in a bargaining agreement signed by UF’s Board of Trustees, Mermer wrote in an email. The language allowing GAU to use anonymous complaints to trigger an investigation was added as a response to Chen’s death.

UF is now required to give the union a copy of any future investigation findings if it files a formal complaint to the university and asks UF to investigate. However, UF is not required to release the results for Chen’s case once it is concluded because the agreement was passed after Chen’s death and GAU did not file a complaint, Mermer said. 

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UF has seen the union’s demands, but declined to comment on them due to the ongoing investigation, Fernandez wrote.

“The university should release all details of the investigation and, at the very least, suspend Tao Li without pay, if not terminate his employment entirely,” Mermer wrote in an email.

Some students marched Thursday night to show their solidarity with Chen. Mentor abuse is still an issue at UF, Zachary Bush, a former UF physics graduate student, said. 

Bush said he faced verbal abuse from his advisor, who still works at UF. He said he believes his  former mentor is still verbally abusing people. He wishes that mentors would refrain from degrading their students and stick to more respectful criticism. 

GAU’s new ability to trigger an investigation using anonymous complaints is a step in the right direction, Bush said.

“Obviously it’s not an isolated issue,” Bush said. “It’s happening to other graduate students, and who’s to say how many more graduate students are out there who don’t want to speak up because they’re afraid.” 

Five graduate students spoke at the vigil. Some expressed grief over Chen’s death while others shared frustration at how stories of mentor abuse, like Chen’s, are too common in higher education.

“They want the talent of international students, they want the labor of international students, they want the money of international students, but they don’t want to protect those international students who are most at risk of mentor abuse,” Bryn Taylor, a 24-year-old UF rehabilitation science graduate student, said at the vigil.

Taylor, who is also GAU’s communications chair, believes there’s a systemic problem regarding the mistreatment of international students. Because their immigration status is tied to their employment, they often fear reporting incidences of abuse, Taylor said. She wants UF to vocally condemn abusive behavior among mentors

“Wherever Huixiang’s soul is, I hope he’s getting, at least, some well-earned rest,” Taylor said at the vigil.

Contact Alexander Lugo at Follow him on Twitter @AlexLugo67.

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Alexander Lugo

Alexander is a fourth-year journalism student at UF. This is his first semester at The Alligator where he is covering university administration. In his free time, he enjoys taking hikes and going for bike rides. 

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