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Lawsuits, Libel, and Nepotism: A Scandal in Dunster House

Dunster Gate
During the 1993-1994 academic year, a group of Dunster House tutors sued other Dunster tutors for libel following controversy over nepotism and Faculty Dean misconduct.

In May 1994, Dunster House was home to controversy among several members of its tutor staff, who charged the House leadership had engaged in biased hiring practices, leading to a stifling climate in the House.

Eight Dunster tutors accused then-senior tutor Vincent W. Li ’87 — a Harvard Medical School student — of inappropriately influencing Dunster House Faculty Dean, formerly known as House Master, Karel F. Liem to hire Li’s brother, girlfriend, and two of his childhood friends as tutors.

The tutors at first only spoke to The Crimson under conditions of anonymity, fearing retaliation from Li. They charged that Li had been present for the interviews of many of his family and his friends. Moreover, the tutors questioned why Li’s close friend had been hired in 1991 despite being ranked last by the House’s student interviewers.

Students in the House did not take this news lightly. Dunster resident Ted G. Rose ’94 revived Dunster Students for Free Expression — a club established two years prior in the midst of another free speech controversy — to speak out against Li.

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“I just remember that we wanted to make sure that the other tutors weren’t getting railroaded,” Rose said.

In March 1993, Liem reportedly held a meeting where he told tutors he could not work with people who “did not trust” him. Many tutors said they interpreted this as a threat. Former Dunster House tutor Sophie A. Volpp ’85, for example, said Liem threatened to fire her for speaking to The Crimson.

In September 1993, Li and his brother, William W. Li ’84, decided to turn to the law to resolve the situation. The pair sent letters to six different House tutors threatening to sue them for libel if the tutors publicly alleged improper conduct. In response, Volpp eventually resigned two weeks later, citing the letter as her reasoning.

“I think it was a little bit shocking to have that kind of aggressive, legalistic action in our small little community,” Rose said.

At Dunster, the Li brothers co-chaired the House’s pre-med committee — a group that reviews student’s medical school applications — which raised concerns among students. Dunster Students for Free Expression called for a third committee chair in order to mediate fears among House affiliates for making any public oppositional statements, among other demands.

“It’s a far more innocent time, you wonder whether that kind of threatening behavior can actually go somewhere,” Rose said. “I just remember that the question was hanging in the air, right?”

During this period, three tutors — including Volpp — resigned, directly citing the scandal as one of the central reasons for their resignation. Nine tutors in total did not return to Dunster the following year.

Rose said Dunster Students for Free Expression met with Liem so that it could serve as a “vehicle for students to come together” and voice their concerns.

“People were keenly interested in making sure that bullying tactics weren’t going to carry the day,” Rose added.

Victor Chiu ‘95, who served as co-chair of the House committee, said he remembered Dunster to be a “very open, liberal environment,” though he noted he had only a “vague recollection” of the series of events among tutors.

“People were free to form any protest organization or any organization to do whatever they wanted,” Chiu said.

Liem directed the Lis to withdraw the letters in October 1993. Liem took responsibility for the increased tension in the house and formally apologized for his conduct, though he noted he had not known about the letters prior to their being sent.

"I want to appeal to the students to look forward, and I will work together to find a fairer system of appointing and evaluating tutors," Liem said at the time.

Throughout the ordeal, he defended Vincent Li against the original charges of improperly influencing the hiring process, claiming that there had been no “wrongdoing” and instead calling the situation a “miscommunication.”

With the potential for lawsuits now out of the picture, Liem refocused on revising tutor hiring processes in the House. Among these revisions included amendments to the pre-med advisory committee that required Liem and another senior tutor to review applications and increased transparency between students, tutors, and administrators, Liem announced at an October meeting with House affiliates.

In June 1994, a University committee found the Lis guilty of harassment and called on the tutors to “desist the behavior.” Li told The Crimson that the tutors alleging harassment were “charlatans and amoral,” who “have no business being at Harvard.” Liem said the committee’s report only found Vincent Li guilty of being “unwise.”

The following academic year, Dunster seemed to have moved on, Rose said. Karel and Hetty Liem were re-hired as faculty deans, though their contract was renewed for two years instead of the typical five. Rose said he believed the House’s administration took the right approach to remedying the issue.

“That’s why repairing transgressions is to important, and why 25 years later, it can be hardly a memory in that sense, because the repair occurred,” Rose concluded.

Neither of the Lis responded to a request for comment for this story. Liem died in 2009.

—Staff writer Anna Kate E. Cannon can be reached at anna.cannon@thecrimson.com Follow her on Twitter @ae_cannon.

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