With arms flailing, he springs enraged from his chair and paces about his small, dark office. Sounds erupt and contract in his throat as he stumbles on words wrapped in anger and a thick Chinese accent. Sentences are punctuated with quick nods and furious waves of his fist.
"I very emotional, you see," says Dr. Kuo-Chun Chen, who teaches in Wayne State University’s biology department. "A person struggle to do things and then be stripped of everything."
When the 64-year-old doctor of molecular genetics came to Detroit 30 years ago, his career seemed ripe with promise. His groundbreaking research was published in prominent genetics journals; scientists around the world inquired about his findings and showered him with accolades, awards and lecture invitations.
But his success petered out. His research waned, he published few papers, and he received fewer and fewer grants and awards. Chen blames WSU. Chen is suing WSU, alleging discrimination based on his ethnicity and age. He accuses the university of denying him a promotion, taking away his lab and office space, and attempting to revoke his tenure when he refused to retire. The most astonishing allegation is that WSU lost his patented invention that had the potential to analyze the effect of microwave radiation on cancer cells — and which a Chinese company offered to purchase for $1.75 million.
Two years ago, when WSU tried to prevent him from teaching — which he considers part of his Christian duty — Chen filed the lawsuit against WSU in Wayne County Circuit Court. Though Chen would never put it so bluntly, the lawsuit suggests that a lot went into pissing off the seemingly passive professor.
For instance, biology department administrators contend in court documents that they took away Chen’s classes because his prominent accent prevented him from being an effective teacher. Chen claims more insidious motives were at work. The lawsuit alleges that a colleague, Professor John Taylor, wielded his power as chairman of the department to undermine Chen and directed subsequent chairs to do the same. Taylor, other administrators named in the suit and attorneys representing the university declined to discuss the case with the Metro Times, citing WSU’s policy prohibiting comment on pending litigation.
Was Chen’s declining status in the biology department the cause or effect of his declining career? Did his accent diminish the quality of his teaching? Did colleagues sabotage his career? Those will likely become questions for a jury.
What is clear is that the molecular geneticist never realized his full potential at WSU.
A promising future
By the age of 14, when Chen left Fujian on the Chinese mainland for Taiwan, he had seen the destruction of World War II bombings and China’s communist revolution.
"I did not consider it a hardship," says Chen about leaving his family and four siblings to study at National Taiwan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1954. "Some people don’t do things because too hard; I don’t. I want to make a difference."
His next stop, thanks to a U.S.-sponsored scholarship, was Virginia State University, where he earned his master’s degree in genetics. The slight man with lines running along his smooth skin saw America as the land of opportunity, particularly in contrast to the oppression he had escaped.
In the 1960s, his parents suffered through the cultural revolution. Each day, he says, they were dragged from their home and humiliated before a crowd of onlookers because their son had moved to the United States.
"My father and mother had to come out and be judged by a group of people and tell whether they have done something disloyal to the government," explains Chen. "At that time, any family member who has anything to do with the United States they treat like a spy."
Though Chen neither saw his parents again before they passed away nor recognized his siblings when he returned to his homeland three decades later, he does not regret leaving China to pursue his education. "Anything I get, I try to appreciate and not take for granted," says Chen. "When people do for me, I never forget, that’s my life."
While his parents were suffering, Chen thrived, earning his Ph.D. in molecular genetics at Columbia University, followed by postdoctoral research at the University of Rochester. "I get the best professors in my field," says Chen, still thankful for the guidance and encouragement that helped launch his career.
In Rochester, under the direction of Dr. Arnold Ravin, Chen published six papers between 1965 and 1968 on his innovative research in molecular genetics. "Our collaboration was very good one," says Chen, who speaks highly of Ravin. In a letter to WSU recommending Chen for a position, Ravin wrote of Chen’s command of literature in his field and said that "his own research will undoubtedly be brought to bear on the important issues of his field. In short, he shows exceptional promise for a productive career in research."
The American way
Though other universities and medical schools offered teaching and research positions, Chen chose WSU’s biology department in 1968. He says he wanted to help modernize the urban university’s then antiquated science programs to repay the country that made it possible for him to leave Taiwan.
"I want to give back to the society," explains Chen, whose accent initially makes it difficult to understand him. "I have been unlucky in some way in my life, and other way, such privilege, like in my education."
Chen relocated his wife, Joanna, and two young children, Sanford and June, to Detroit. He says that Dr. Dominic DeGiusti, then chairman of the biology department, readily welcomed him. In 1971 DeGiusti and his colleagues recommended tenure for the young scientist. In a statement of support, DeGiusti wrote that "Dr. Chen is without question the outstanding scholar in the department of biology." He went on to say that Chen’s "research is a frontier area and he is at the very edge of the frontier. If WSU can provide the proper environment, there is no question that Dr. Chen in very few years will rank as one of the world’s great molecular geneticists."
Initially his career flourished. Between 1971 and 1978, Chen published six papers and lectured on his work around the country and abroad, according to court records. A 4-inch binder contains letters from German, Russian, Israeli and other scientists inquiring about Chen’s research and seeking permission to republish papers. Chen received research grants totaling nearly $600,000, served on university and Ph.D. candidate committees, and taught at least one class a semester. And he did all of this while keeping up his volunteer obligations in his community. He says that he sat on several public education boards, served as a church president, and helped coordinate a scientific exchange program between two local hospitals and China.
"I think everyone should also pay attention to things outside our own regular job … to take care of someone they don’t know," says Chen. "That make me feel very happy and real American, that is American value."
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledged his work in 1978 with the prestigious John E. Fogarty Senior International Fellow Award. Each year the NIH honors about 15 scientists in the United States who represent the best in American health sciences, according to Kathleen Michels, NIH program officer for the division of international training and research. The award allowed Chen to study at the University of Cambridge in England for one year. Though many of his colleagues at WSU congratulated him, he says, Taylor, then chairman of the biology department, did not.
"He never want me to be successful," says Chen, looking a little wounded 21 years later.
It was when Chen returned to WSU after his year sabbatical at Cambridge that his troubles began.
Sitting with his attorney in a meeting room at her office, Chen pulls red-, blue- and beige-colored folders from his leather briefcase. Each contains meticulously organized documents, a small portion of the hundreds he has accumulated in 30 years at WSU. Like a good scientist who formulates a hypothesis and sets out to prove it, Chen argues that WSU wronged him and presents his papers as evidence. "Everything I do, I document," he says. "I have a very scholarly mind."
But Chen does not simply exhibit scholarly devotion to his case; he is something of a fanatic, not unlike many plaintiffs locked in discrimination suits with employers. The plaintiffs often retell the same facts as if elucidating new revelations. Chen is no different. Minute details are repeated with the same fervor as critical ones. And among his hundreds of papers, he can put his hand on the exact one requested at any given moment.
Chen turns over a three-page letter Taylor wrote in 1996, which his attorney refers to as "the smoking gun." It is an evaluation of Chen’s performance during Taylor’s 13 years as chairman (1974-1987), and it was written to Jack Lilien, who had taken over as chairman in 1994. By the time of the letter, a feud was brewing between Chen and Lilien.
Lilien started removing Chen’s teaching duties in 1995 because of alleged performance problems, and threatened to detenure him if he did not retire, according to court documents.
Lilien, like the other administrators named in the suit, declined to comment specifically. "We will not be able to do that with the lawsuit pending," he says. "I wouldn’t mind venting on someone, but I can’t do it."
To Chen, the letter confirms that his success threatened Taylor. To Chen’s attorney, Jeanne Mirer, the letter shows the power Taylor wielded, even after he was no longer department chairman, and his attitudes toward Chen.
Chen points to several statements. One in particular, he says, shows how Taylor compares his standing in the department to Chen’s. Taylor writes that WSU hired the two men the same year, but appointed Chen associate professor. Taylor was made an assistant professor, one rank lower. Chen and Mirer say that Taylor never recovered from this. "He could never get over the fact that this Chinese guy, a first-generation immigrant, would get hired in at a higher level than him," says Mirer. "Why would he bring it up in 1996, something that happened in 1968?"
"One of my goals," writes Taylor, "was to activate the research programs of several of the people in the department whom I felt needed a little nudge in order to move forward. Dr. Chen was one of these individuals."
"Nudge," spouts Mirer, "Dr. Chen is extremely motivated." She also notes that in his letter, Taylor neither mentions that Chen lectured around the country and Europe nor that he applied for and received the Fogarty fellowship. Taylor does note in the letter several unfruitful grant proposals to the NIH.
"It seems to be a problem he had with Chen from day one, that he was going to … keep him down," says Mirer, who describes the letter as "condescending as shit." She points to another statement: "My own assessment is that Dr. Chen is a very bright guy," writes Taylor. "And, he may be up-to-date with the literature. For example for years I have noticed that he receives a large number of books. Assuming that he reads them, then I suspect he probably is up-to-date with his field."
But the most obvious statements, says Mirer, are Taylor’s comments about Chen’s age: "I believe that since his career has probably been a disappointment to him, he is discouraged. Clearly it is too late in his career for a change. My records indicate … he will be 59 this May."
According to the lawsuit, Chen’s career began to flounder not long after Taylor became head of the department. When Chen returned from England in 1979, he says that he spoke with Taylor about promoting him from an associate professor to full professor. According to the lawsuit, Taylor denied the request though he admitted that the faculty would give Chen its full support. Chen appealed to the then dean of the college, but was told in a letter that to make a unilateral decision regarding the promotion would violate WSU policy.
According to university policy, Chen could have pursued other avenues, but he didn’t.
Hiro Mizukami has been teaching in WSU’s biology department since 1965 and is its most senior faculty member. Mizukami says he simply doubts Chen is "full professor material."
"Just being talented doesn’t mean anything," says Mizukami. "You have to publish papers, bring in grants, teach and advise Ph.D. students." He says Chen has not been active in the department for years: "I think he was sort of active when he came to the school ... and drifted away from research."
Chen says he was discouraged and did not pursue becoming a full professor.
"I felt helpless after talking to the dean," says Chen. "I just continued to do my research."
But it wasn’t easy. According to the lawsuit, Taylor regularly referred to Chen as a member of the "Chinese Mafia," and did not support him in getting merit raises despite his exceptional work. To this day, Chen, the second most senior faculty member along with Taylor, is one of the lowest paid members of the biology department.
Around 1981, Chen began suffering from an irregular heartbeat and says that he fainted a few times during class; a hereditary heart condition was aggravated by work stress, he says. Though this slowed him down some, he continued his research and managed to patent his electromagnetic radiation device in 1982. His invention was intended to analyze the effect of microwave radiation on cancer cells; his dream was to help to find a cure for cancer.
"How to better people and benefit society always on my mind," says Chen. "If we don’t put society and people first, science is meaningless."
With the help of his wife, Joanna, and closest friend, C.Y. Lou, the Microwave Guide Exposure System came to be. Joanna’s family, which owns a metal fabricating company, provided the materials; Lou, an electrical engineer, helped build the machine over a roughly two-year period, says Chen.
According to policies governing the university, WSU has an option on the patent of any faculty member’s invention, which it chose to exercise in Chen’s case. However, WSU also is obligated to market and license the patent; royalties resulting from the sale go to the inventor and WSU according to percentages established by the school. What Chen did not know at the time is that if WSU failed to market and license his invention within two years, the university is legally obligated to return his ownership rights. About 13 years would pass before WSU returned the patent to Chen.
About one year after Chen’s invention was patented, Joanna was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died in 1984 at the age of 45. Chen is convinced that his wife’s illness was caused by the stress of seeing her husband’s work go unrecognized and unrewarded. Chen’s daughter, June, who was 17 when her mother passed away, agrees. "My mother was extremely devoted to my father and she tried to take on the burden," she says.
June recalls her parents trying to protect her and her two brothers from their father’s professional problems. "How can you shelter children from it?" she asks.
Lost in space
At his Bloomfield Hills home adorned with Chinese furnishings, Chen pours green tea from a porcelain pot. While he continues his story, June and his two sons, Sanford, the oldest, and Theodore, call to check in on their father. Though Chen says he feels cheated of professional success, he is glad for his children’s accomplishments and speaks of them proudly. Sanford and June are medical doctors. Theodore is in his third year of medical school at WSU.
His children call, he says, to see how he is handling the stress of the suit. When a WSU attorney was taking Chen’s deposition last year, he blanked out and could not answer any questions, he says. He fainted and was rushed to the hospital where he was treated for an anxiety attack.
Chen acknowledges that his troubled health slowed his progress at WSU. But the biggest setback was losing his laboratory, he says.
In 1986, Chen took a sabbatical at the National Taiwan University College of Medicine, Taipei. When he returned, Taylor, whose office and lab were being renovated, had taken over Chen’s office and lab, according to the lawsuit. Chen says he was forced to move from an 1,800-square-foot lab to a 12-by-10 room. Without a lab, Chen could no longer continue his research, which made it pointless to apply for grants, he says. He advised few Ph.D. students because he did not have a lab where they could do research. Chen says he did not protest for fear of aggravating his heart condition. To this day, WSU has not provided him alternate lab space, according to court documents.
Cause and effect is a question here. Some faculty members say Chen lost his lab because he had not generated any grants. Howard Petty, who has been teaching at WSU’s biology department for 19 years, explains that labs are costly and professors must help pay for them by bringing in grants. "You may go a year or so without money and shouldn’t have your space taken away from you, but in (Chen’s) case that went on for decades, and that’s a problem," he says. "If you don’t want to use it let us give it to someone who is going to do research." Chen’s last grant award was in 1980. Others in the department echo Petty.
Carl Freeman, who has been teaching at WSU’s biology department 21 years, rattles off a few names of people who lost their labs.
"My guess, and this is only a guess, is that they were not doing productive research," he says, "and were not bringing in grants and publishing."
But one professor, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, says Chen is the only one in the biology department he knows to have his lab taken and not replaced.
In the spring of 1995, Lilien met with Chen and, according to court documents, suggested that the then 60-year-old professor retire; if not, he would attempt to revoke Chen’s tenure. When Chen refused to retire, pressure mounted, and Lilien began cutting back on the classes Chen taught. One memo cited Chen’s "poor performance … and your unwillingness to make any attempt to improve your communication skills." Lilien had previously told Chen of complaints that students found him hard to understand. Lilien had suggest that Chen seek help from the university’s English Language Institute. To what extent Chen’s speech caused difficulties for students became a major issue in the months to come.
"When they stopped my teaching, how do my colleagues look at me?" asks Chen. "How do my students look at me? They ruin my professional reputation."
After 28 years at WSU, Chen’s teaching skills were in question. He asked the Wayne State Chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to intercede. Dr. Marlyne Kilbey, then AAUP’s contract compliance officer, advocated on his behalf. "He was terribly depressed about all of this," says Kilbey, who has been a professor in WSU’s psychology department since 1983.
As they addressed the problem, Kilbey noticed a change in Chen. Anger slowly began replacing despair. "Chen went from being depressed to being mad enough to fight about it," she says.
Asked why he waited so long to fight back, Chen says, "I know this is free country and free land … I always thought this will change."
According to Chen’s daughter, June, her father’s passivity is due to being a first generation immigrant. "Any one of us would not have tolerated it," she says, referring native-born Americans. "But coming from a different country you expect this to be the free land and if you are honest and pay your dues, you are not supposed to be discriminated against." She also says that her father "has been of the thought that if you work hard then all should be OK in the end, but unfortunately that never happened."
Around the same time that Chen was embroiled in a battle over his teaching, he also was trying to find out whether WSU had attempted to market his microwave radiation invention. According to Chen’s attorney, who is still seeking information from WSU, only one 1986 letter reflects WSU’s marketing efforts.
Chen was eager to get the patent returned to him, which the university finally did in 1995, because he was negotiating a deal with a Chinese company. It eventually offered to buy the machine and patent for $1.75 million on the condition — according to the purchase agreement — that Chen reproduce his initial results with the machine within 10 months. There was just one problem: Chen’s invention was missing. When his office was moved a decade earlier, he says, he was told the machine was put in storage. According to court documents, Chen sent letters to Lilien inquiring about it. He in turn asked the faculty to keep an eye out for Chen’s invention, but it was never found. The purchase offer was nullified.
In the meantime, Kilbey asked Lilien to provide the number of students who allegedly complained about Chen’s teaching and their specific criticisms. She says that he never provided this. Kilbey suspects that the reason he didn’t is that few if any students complained. "Dr. Chen had very high teaching evaluations, exemplary teaching evaluations. That’s why this was so ludicrous," says Kilbey.
In fact, in 1995, the same year Lilien pushed him to retire, Chen received an average of 6.3 and 6.2 out of 7 in student evaluations for the two graduate courses he taught — the second- and third-highest ratings in the department; he rated 5.0 for his undergraduate course. (Ironically, Lilien received a 4.5 in 1995 for a course open to both graduate and undergraduate students — the second-lowest rating in the department that term.) In 1996, eight former Chen students nominated him for the annual "Excellence in Teaching Award," a campuswide competition.
But according to court documents, some students did complain to Lilien that they could not understand Chen because of his accent.
Lilien requested letters from the previous three chairs about Chen’s performance — this was the genesis of what Mirer calls the "smoking gun" letter. Each wrote that Chen had considerable problems and many student complaints. According to Chen’s attorney, Lilien requested the letters in an attempt to build a case against him. Ultimately it didn’t work.
Several of Chen’s colleagues say that there will always be some students who will complain about a class or professor. Dr. Francis Sanders, who taught in the biology department for 10 years, says, "The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who think and listen and those who refuse to think and listen and refuse to understand him."
(Of the chairman’s attitude toward Chen, Sanders says, "Lilien thought he was dealing with a laundry boy." Other professors made other critical remarks about Lilien, but spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal.)
Chen’s day of truth came April 18, 1996, at the AAUP hearing. Chen presented his case to six faculty members who would decide how to resolve the long-standing battle between him and Lilien. According to Kilbey, who attended the hearing, several students also testified on Chen’s behalf. "Students usually don’t care to come to these things," she says. "I thought that was highly favorable for Dr. Chen."
The panel said that Chen has problems communicating to undergraduate students, but this is not reflected in graduate class evaluations. They advised that Chen be allowed to teach again, preferably a graduate course. The panel concluded that "there is no evidence available to it that would indicate that detenuring Professor Chen would be an acceptable alternative."
"Allegations of backstabbing"
"I tell you that administrators are interesting," says Seymour Wolfson, who has been a professor at WSU for more than 30 years and served on the AAUP hearing panel. "They can use the rules and procedures and things to get … what they want," he says.
Exactly what Lilien wanted, Wolfson says he does not know. Other professors in the biology department speculated on this, but would not talk on the record for fear of reprisal.
"There are no constraints on chairs except for their own good sense," says Kilbey.
Scott Jaschik is the managing editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that reports on colleges and universities around the country. Jaschik says, "There are lots of allegations of backstabbing at universities." He compares it to law firms where colleagues often evaluate one another. "This creates the possibility to be treated unfairly," he says, "and for people to shout that they’ve been treated unfairly when maybe they haven’t been."
Jaschik says that his newspaper sees lots of lawsuits "over treatment of faculty and tenure and promotions." And he notes that "in general, universities tend to win lawsuits." Whether WSU or Chen will prevail is yet to be seen. No trial date has been scheduled.
While he waits for his day in court, Chen says his struggles at WSU continue. Not long after the AAUP hearing, he says some of his personal belongings were discarded from his writing room, including the only copy of a textbook manuscript he spend five years writing, Microbial and Cell Genetics. He believes that his things were intentionally thrown out in retaliation for the AAUP grievance. In a memo to Lilien he writes, "I have had to file a complaint about my treatment by you with the AAUP, to get my teaching duties restored. … I cannot help but feel these latest actions in not taking care to insure my property is protected is but a retaliation for those complaints." (Chen is far more comfortable writing English than speaking it.)
According to memos Lilien wrote Chen, he informed the entire department that their belongings would be discarded if they were not moved. Chen says he never received this notice.
"My students still constantly say when my health permits I should try to finish because they really need this kind of book," says Chen. He does not tell them that the manuscript is gone. Despite his misfortunes, Chen says he is hopeful that life in the United States will be easier for his children. The Chinese professor, who wears an American flag pin on his jacket lapel says he hopes his story teaches tolerance: "I could become very unreasonable, but I go a different way. I have to double my love."
He holds a bookmark painted for him by his 10-year-old daughter, Vivian, his child by his second wife, Christine.
Chen beams when describing Vivian’s recent piano recital. She scored 99 out of 100 points. "Exceptional!" he says smiling. "She so happy."
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