Grad student could be deported

Zihui Tang came to Duke in the hopes of getting her Ph.D. in history. Now she is fighting to stay in the country.

Tang, who entered the Ph.D. program in Fall 2003, was dismissed by the Department of History in late June, after having been placed on probation.

Tang has accused her former advisor, Associate Professor Sucheta Mazumdar, of creating an abusive and exploitative relationship, and said that her probation from the University is retaliation for lodging a complaint.

If she is no longer a full-time student at Duke, Tang will lose her visa and be forced to return to China.

"My case is very obvious: the advisor took advantage of my foreign status and my gender," Tang said. "My case also put a lot of graduate and professional students in a situation where they're scared. Their confidence in the grievance procedure has been rocked."

Tang's experience has also put the efficacy and transparency of that procedure under the microscope.

Mazumdar, history department officials and Graduate School officials declined to comment for this article, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits the release of educational records. The Office of Institutional Equity cited similar requirements for confidentiality.

Tang's grievance process began when she lodged a complaint about Mazumdar with then-Director of Graduate Studies Edward Balleisen in May 2005. Since then, her case has made its way up through the DGS and the associate chair of the history department to the associate dean and dean of the Graduate School and the Office of Institutional Equity.

It now sits with Provost Peter Lange, whose decision to reconsider her dismissal is anticipated sometime this week.

If he refuses to overturn the previous decisions, Tang said she will appeal to President Richard Brodhead, her last recourse.

Accusations of abuse

In a compendium of evidence submitted to the provost, Tang outlines the abuses she said Mazumdar committed, citing e-mails in which her former advisor demands a five-page written self-evaluation and self-criticism and attacks Tang's alma mater.

Tang also alleges Mazumdar forced her to make an appointment with a counseling psychologist and told Tang she was "desperate," "hysterical" and suffering from premenstrual syndrome.

In addition, Tang complains of stereotyping against Chinese students. In April 2005, Tang submitted a required annual plan in which she said she would take preliminary examinations the following spring, as is standard.

In the document submitted to Lange, Tang quotes Mazumdar's response.

"Basically, I don't think any student from China, even one with a far stronger background than yours, and with far fewer writing problems can possibly take their prelims in the third year and pass," Mazumdar wrote in the e-mail.

Tang said she chose not to report problems with Mazumdar until her fourth semester because of legal worries. As an international student, her visa is valid only as long as she is enrolled as a full-time student. Because the University has no other Chinese history professors, she said she worried that dropping Mazumdar as an advisor would mean losing student status.

"I had no other options," Tang said. "[As a foreign student,] I was relatively isolated."

Graduate student response

Tang's case has garnered the attention of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association and the History Graduate Students Association, which has sent a letter to Lange calling for a thorough inquiry.

"We're concerned that she feels her removal might not stem from academic reasons but from retaliation for her complaint," said Reena Goldthree, a fourth-year graduate student in history and chair of the HGSA.

GPSC President Audrey Ellerbee, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student, supports an inquiry, but cautioned against hasty judgment. "It's always unnerving [when a student is dismissed]," she said. "It always seems like it must have been unfair, like something must have gone wrong in the system, but we're not close to the details. We've only heard what Zihui has presented. At some point, you have to defer to the people in the field."

Jing Huang, a second-year graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, is heading an effort by the DCSSA to support Tang's appeal. Huang said he is not optimistic about her chances.

"People care about Duke basketball, they care about how the lacrosse case reflects on the school," Huang said. "But people don't care about international students."

Tang's situation has exposed the opacity surrounding grievance procedures, graduate student leaders said.

"There aren't clearly defined policies about how to express concerns with advisors, and students often don't know where to turn when they have problems," Goldthree said.

Tang added that the grievance system is biased toward the protection of faculty.

"We have some guidelines, but if you really want to do something according to these procedures, it's a bad idea [to complain] if you want to continue working here," she said. "To me, it's just window dressing."

Tang defends her record

A probationary letter dated June 27, 2005 states that Tang's academic probation is a result of her limited English proficiency, her inability as assessed by Mazumdar to pass preliminary exams, questions about her research skills and the lack of an advisor.

Tang said her grades, however, have consistently been between 'A' and 'B'-minus-or the Graduate School equivalents of 'E' to 'G'-minus. She has a 3.49 grade point average.

Tang also disputes critiques of her English abilities, citing her scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language and the Graduate Record Examination, both of which exceeded departmental requirements.

In an e-mail, Rhonda Jones, an instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies who taught Tang, supported Tang's defense of her language abilities.

"I found her to be a diligent student who was quite competent in expressing herself both orally and in written communication," she wrote.

Tang added that the workload Mazumdar assigned her violated the Federal Immigrant Law's stipulations regarding the maximum workload for international students.

Cultural differences sometimes lead to misunderstandings, Ellerbee said.

"There is a lot of miscommunication, not intentional misuse of international students by professors," Ellerbee said. "There might be stereotypes about how much a student is willing to work outside of class."

Tang said she arrived at Duke eager to learn but she has suffered humiliation and lack of academic support and training since her arrival at the University.

"To be honest, I do wish I have the opportunity to complete my dissertation project," she said. "But I don't think there's a friendly learning environment for me here."

Holley Horrell contributed to this story.


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