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Dear President Rudenstine:

An open letter to improve graduate student support systems


With great sorrow, the Harvard Chinese Students and Scholars Association (HCSSA) mourns the tragic loss of Hailei Ge, a fellow Chinese student in computer science who just came to Harvard and this country two months ago. Hailei died in an apparent suicide; his death sent shock waves through Chinese communities across the nation. We hope a lesson can be learned from this heart-wrenching tragedy. In this letter, we will address several issues pertinent to Harvard University, offer some suggestions and look forward to working constructively with the school to improve the present conditions.

First, HCSSA would like to express our appreciation for the generous help and support we received from GSAS and the university administration in arranging Hailei's funeral and in facilitating his family's visit. Special thanks go to Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Garth McCavana; Ellen Fox, Director of Student Services; Associate Director of the International Office Sharon Ladd; Counselor from the Bureau of Study Counsel Sunglim A. Shin; President of Graduate Student Council Adam Fagen for their active participation in a seminar discussion on Hailei's death and for their help in other matters.

In the past few weeks, we contacted Hailei's family and his friends. There is no doubt that Hailei died in an apparent suicide, but the circumstance surrounding his death left much to be answered. As with most international students, Hailei underwent stressful adjustments to a new environment in a different country. However, he did not appear to be hit harder by this transition than anyone else. Conversations with his teaching fellows and his classmates revealed that Hailei not only performed well in all four courses he took at Harvard, he also had time to do research for McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science H.T. Kung, who was assigned as his academic advisor.

Despite some lingering concerns about the academic relationship with his advisor, Hailei was apparently happy and excited by the new life at Harvard. On Nov. 3, two days before his death, Hailei smiled as usual and had cheerful conversation with several people. No sign of depression or emotional disturbance was noted. On Nov. 4, he had a conversation with his advisor in the afternoon. He also sent an e-mail to a friend to seek help. He looked very upset, could not calm down and left a session halfway, something he had never done before. At midnight that day, he said to a friend who went to his dormitory to discuss a problem set "You must save me!". On Nov. 5, Hailei went back to work early in the morning and talked briefly with his advisor. He committed suicide at 2:15 p.m. that afternoon. According to Kung's account, he did not notice anything abnormal of Hailei during their last two conversations on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Had Hailei been subjected to undue pressure, or unfair treatment by certain individual or individuals? Was he really overwhelmed by the course load? We strongly urge and would greatly appreciate if the Administration carried out a thorough investigation of the circumstances leading to his fatal action. We believe such an investigation would not only provide consolation to Hailei's family, but also aid to prevent future suicides.

As one in a series of suicides that occurred at Harvard in the last few years, Hailei's case makes us ponder the changes in the faculty-student relationship in an academic environment and the potential danger associated with such changes. The traditional "trust-based" mentor-pupil relationship is being challenged by ongoing changes in our society. The power imbalance inherent in the teacher-student relationship is further aggravated by the advent of professionalization and the proliferation of commercialization. A professor is in control of such vast resources that his/her action can have a significant impact on a student's career and future prospects. Notwithstanding the tradition and the good-will of most professors and students, such an idealized "trust-based" system is no longer sufficient under the current situation.

An unregulated employer-employee relationship could pose severe problems, even in an academic environment. We feel strongly that certain institutional reforms are in demand. First, a comprehensive survey among all graduate students, especially the international students, should be conducted by the University so that the breadth and depth of the problems can be determined. The survey should focus on course load, work load, financial conditions, advisor-student relationship and on the conditions that are unique to international students. Second, based on the survey results, a detailed standard of professional conduct and faculty responsibilities should be established. Special attention should be given to define the obligations of a faculty member to his or her students, to determine unacceptable behavior and to specify rules against misconduct. Third, we propose that the Administration work with the Graduate Student Council, HCSSA, and other student groups to draft a Student Rights document on what a student is entitled to from their advisors, the departments and the University. Fourth, some institutional arrangements need to be made so that the student rights and the faculty responsibilities can be overseen and examined on a regular basis, and student complaints be handled in a timely manner.

Such a regulated system would also help to uphold the fundamental educational principles of our university. Do we want an education system where concerns about scientific achievements top everything else, or do we aspire to an environment in which a student can look up to the professors as role models? We have complete confidence that Harvard University, with its ample resources, inspiring leadership and long-standing commitment to quality education, can accomplish the goal with the support of its faculty and students.

International students from around the world have made indispensable contributions to the vitality of the University. Renowned for its commitment to diversity, Harvard has an array of existing supporting networks for its students, most notably the Harvard International Office (HIO) and the Bureau of Study Council (BSC). These institutions and programs help thousands of international students every year for which we are all very grateful. There are some suggestions we would like to offer to further improve these programs.

HIO provides valuable services and advice for international students on issues such as visas, taxes and housing. It also maintains some great programs such as the host family program. However, many students wish that HIO can be made more like a cozy home-away-from-home for international students rather than an administrative institution. This can be accomplished by collaborating with student groups such as HCSSA and GSC in their existing programs to tackle a broader range of issues that include how to overcome language barriers and the perception of isolation and how to alleviate academic and psychological pressures.

Such efforts could be coordinated with the BSC as well as the University Health Service (UHS), both of which provide professional counseling for all students. Due to language and cultural differences however, international students, especially those from Asia, are much less likely to utilize these resources effectively. BSC should appoint expert counselors who can speak the languages of major minority groups. We hope BSC and UHS can help to provide more training to the volunteers so that a more professional counseling service can be provided. Last but not least, it is of great importance to inform and encourage the students to use all these existing services as much as possible.

None of these reforms can be implemented without the leadership, the coordination, and the commitment of resources from the University administration. None of the difficulties, however, is insurmountable inface of a determined and assiduous effort by a united Harvard community. We sincerely hope that you, the president of Harvard University, can take a lead in these reforms with your wisdom and experience. We hereby pledge our full support to the university administration, and look forward to joining in a concerted effort to alleviate the existing problems.

--Harvard Chinese Students and Scholars Association

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