Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the University of Florida campus.
Huixiang Chen, a 30-year-old Chinese doctoral student, committed suicide on the University of Florida campus in June 2019. The university ordered Tao Li, a Chinese-American professor, to take a paid leave of absence in mid-February while the case is investigated. Chen had accused Li of academic misconduct and abuse during his lifetime.
WUFT News obtained the personnel information under Florida’s public records law. One of the letters shows that Tao Li, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was placed on leave by the university on Feb. 15. Steve Orlando, a spokesman for the university, recently said there was no update on the school’s investigation, which has been ongoing for nearly 20 months.
Li Tao is accused of abusive behavior during his academic work supervising Huixiang Chen, a 30-year-old Chinese doctoral student. Huixiang Chen committed suicide in June 2019. Chen, who was from Shandong, China, came to the United States in 2013 to pursue a doctorate in computer engineering in Florida.
Li was also accused of forcing Chen to submit false data in a research paper submitted in both men’s names and presented at a prestigious academic conference. In a communication with a friend before his suicide, Chen Huixiang said he had no hope of exposing Li Tao’s misconduct.
“If I ruined his reputation, he would kill me.” Chen wrote in a text.
Chen’s suicide and the accusations against Li have caused a stir in the university community and elsewhere, and raised questions about the harmful environment in academia. The impact of these issues can be particularly dire among International Students, who are often less likely to seek help.
In the latest letter, WUFT said the university told Tao Li that he was no longer allowed to do any work related to the University of Florida, visit campus for any reason or have any contact or communication with any faculty, student or staff member without permission.
For now, the university is allowing Lee to continue to receive a salary of $153,238 for nine months of work per academic year.
The university’s decision came days after a separate investigation by two prominent academic organizations, the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The investigation determined that a research paper presented at the 2019 conference was guilty of academic misconduct.
The investigation did not name either Lee or Chen, although one of the panels withdrew a paper co-authored by the two a few weeks ago, concluding that at least one of the authors knew the paper contained errors or false results.
A few days after that announcement, the Association for Computing Machinery sent its findings to Chen’s father and said it was considering imposing a 15-year ban on anyone involved from attending future academic conferences or publishing articles.
Chen’s friends say the flawed research paper pushed Chen over the edge. Chen left notes for his girlfriend, colleagues and faculty advisers, saying Lee convinced the academic community to accept the paper despite its flaws by virtue of his professional connections. But long before that, friends say, Chen’s relationship with Lee was fraught with stress and tension.
Chen endured the hardships of doing research in the lab without sleep as a graduate assistant and doctoral student, his friends said.
But when Chen was working hard to finish his degree, he had complained that he was asked to run personal errands for Tao Li that had nothing to do with his studies. In a message to a friend, he wrote that Li asked him to go to the airport and be in charge of driving Li Tao’s wife and father-in-law to where they were going.
“I feel like I am the driver.” Chen wrote. In another message in May 2019, he described himself as Lee’s “personal secretary.”
As Chen’s mentor, Lee effectively controlled Chen’s academic and visa status.
WUFT says tensions between Chen and Lee escalated in the days leading up to Chen’s suicide. Witnesses described an explosive argument between the two men in Lee’s office just a week before Chen’s suicide.
The newspaper quoted two of Chen’s friends as saying that Chen had gone to Lee’s office that morning to ask him to retract the questionable research paper and that the two had argued.
Police said Li was in China dealing with a Family emergency when Chen committed suicide. In an email last December, Li said Chen’s friends “intensively and maliciously spread such false statements and misleading information on the Internet to attack me and my family.
In response to Lee’s allegations of improper treatment of Chen, Lee disputed those earlier emails, predicting that he would be exonerated and saying those who made false accusations against him would suffer. “I guarantee they will pay for their actions,” he said.
“I have met with authorized personnel involved in the investigation and have provided witnesses and evidence to refute those making false allegations against me.” Lee wrote.