Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ The Bravery of Dr. Chun

The Bravery of Dr. Chun

Occasionally, when browsing through the vaults of wisdom that is (So this was why they invented the Internet!), I stumble upon the postings of Bishop187, who ends his postings with the following tagline:

Racism is being blind and thinking you can see...

Need it be said that I don't consider myself a racist? That I live in a dynamic multicultural society? That many of my friends and co-workers are from different ethnic backgrounds, and that I have no problem with that? That I have no problem with people speaking other languages and teaching those languages to their children -- so long as they can communicate with the rest of us as well, of course. I'm blind. And I cannot see. I don't think anybody ever looks in the mirror and says to himself "You know, I think I'm a racist pig. I think that I will do racist horrible things because I am a racist bigoted horrible person." I think that everybody has his justification, his reasons as to why his racist actions are not racist. Sometimes, those justifications may be legitimate. More and more, I am thinking that mine are not. Two days ago, I met a former non-professor named Kin-Yip Chun. To his students, and to me, he is known as Dr. Chun, and that is how I shall address him for the remainder of this article. Meeting this brave, fiercely intelligent man shocked me out of few levels of my complacency. I am no longer so sure that I am not as racist -- in my own way -- as those who participate in cross burnings and legalized apartheid.

I had seen Dr. Chun around campus before. He is often to be seen at "Student Appreciation" barbeques or in front of campus buildings, passing out his literature to whomever would accept it and announcing his case to the masses of students rushing off to their classes. On the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, this is not very unusual. Many groups try to rouse support from the apathetic general population on campus. Sometimes I pay attention to these groups. Occasionally I will fork out the dollar or two to purchase their leftist/rightist/revolutionary literature. More often I will just rush by the activists, feeling a little guilty.

Two days ago, I was just about to walk by Dr. Chun again. In fact, I had passed by him on my way to my friendly neighbourhood computing facilities. I had even crossed the street -- but then I decided I would find out what this fuss was all about. I vaguely recalled reading student-written newspaper articles about this man and his situation. I knew that he was a former physics professor, and that he was protesting the administration for some reason. But the sight of this man, nattily dressed in his business suit, a laminated university degree tied around his neck with a strip of flowered scarlet fabric, piqued my curiousity. The advertising had worked. I had been swayed by the army of "Justice for Dr. Chun" signs this man controlled. I decided to see what the fuss was all about.

What I heard astonished me. After Dr. Chun handed me the obligatory literature (an article from Nature magazine, the world famous science journal) he proceeded to tell me his story. After graduating with a doctorate from Berkeley University, this U of T alumnus accepted a position as a research associate with the physics department at the University of Toronto. Supposedly, he had been promised a tenure-track position with the department. Indeed, he gained responsibility to match -- to exceed that of the most senior professor of the department, in fact. He brought in $1.4 million in research grants. He represented Canada at a United Nations conference. He supervised graduate students. He taught classes. But as a research associate, he wasn't on the university's payroll. And he stayed a research associate, for ten years. For ten years, this man served my University, earning accolades and publishing 26 papers in international journals, waiting for tenure and the salary that comes with it. During those ten years, he was passed over for tenure four times. Once, he was passed over for tenure without even being given a chance to compete for a position.

Finally, Dr. Chun complained to the administration. Around that time, his lab was shut down by the police, and Dr. Chun was escorted off campus and told not to return. He claims that there is some link between the two events. I am afraid I do not know enough about the University's position to make a final judgement, but I would tend to agree.

That was in 1995. Since then, Dr. Chun won the right to set foot on campus again, and he has been campaigning mercilessly to have the University of Toronto admit that it did him wrong. At one point, a report into the matter was carried out by the U of T administration. They reached the conclusion that Dr. Chun was exploited -- and they worked for the same administration they were condemning. The story is flabbergasting. I urge you to read all about it on this page set up by Dr. Chun's supporters.

There are two questions that everybody asks when hearing this story:

The first question is relatively straightforward to answer: As a research associate, Dr. Chun depended upon research grants to fund his work. He was expected to use those funds to cover his living expenses as well.

The answer to the second question is not so clear to me. Dr. Chun claims that he likes his Canadian citizenship and that -- despite everything -- he likes the University of Toronto. In fact, he told me that if he wins his case and is awarded tenure at the university, he will accept it and work with the very department he claims exploited him for ten years. I personally have no doubt that a man of his reputation -- which exceeded that of anybody else his department -- couldn't find a tenured position someplace. According to him, the University offered Dr. Chun money to shut up and go away, but he refused. The fact of the matter is that nobody but Dr. Chun knows why Dr. Chun is fighting so hard for this apology.

Who knows? Maybe Dr. Chun has a vicious streak. Maybe he wants to put a black mark on the university. Maybe he wants to run for office on popular support -- his campaign is certainly as slick and polished as that of any politician in heat. Maybe he just wants to get paid. Maybe he wants retribution. Maybe he really really wants a job at U of T. Who knows?

Who cares. It does not matter.

The way I see it, Dr. Chun had opportunities to leave. He could have done very well for himself. He decided not to leave. He decided to expose the ludicrious position he was put in, and the unfairness of University of Toronto hiring practices. He has devoted three years of his life to a cause he has no guarantee will be successful. There is no guarantee that he will end up with a job at the University of Toronto after the curtains have drawn on this drama. That alone qualifies as heroic behaviour.

What makes his actions all the more noble is the fact that he acted as he did while in a position of such power. He had excelled in his field. He had won research grants and teaching privileges and accolades worldwide. Very few people are in the position he is in. He is so deserving of tenure that every minute the University claims that there were people more worthy of tenure-track positions makes our university seem like a campus of fools. Although it is possible that deep-thinking University of Toronto lawyers will be able to weasel out of this situation, I do not believe that Dr. Chun can lose. It would be too much of a travesty. It would be the final, most ridiculous injustice in a string of injustices stretching back thirteen years. And it could very well get the university blacklisted. Already the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) is pressuring the university on the issue, claims Dr. Chun. This university cannot afford that. So, ultimately, I think that Dr. Chun will win his claims of exploitation, if not a paying job as U of T faculty. But he will only do so because his claims are so obvious. He has accomplished so much that the university cannot claim that he did not deserve his tenure with a straight face. Dr. Chun didn't have to put up with all that he has over the past three years. But he made a decision to use his prestige to expose the university's injustice, and that makes him all the more heroic in my eyes. How much pride does he have to swallow to dress up in his suit, hang his Bachelor's degree around his neck and try to drum up support from an utterly apathetic student population? To be sure, the same humility must be noted of any activist who is willing to vocally publicise a cause on this campus, but not every activist has spoken before the United Nations for nuclear disarmament. Think about that for a minute. Apply the Golden Rule. Would you put yourself in such a situation when other universities would (more than likely) roll out the red carpet for the privilege of paying you? Now try to tell me that -- no matter what his motivations -- Dr. Chun is not a hero.

For a moment, let's take it as a given that Dr. Chun was treated unjustly. Is it justified to say that he was the victim of racism? He seems to think so. The picture of him included with the Nature article (Published April 16, 1998, for whomever is interested) depicts him sporting a big placard which reads, "Chinese not allowed at old boy 'club.' U of T, Toronto, 1997." Are these charges of racism justified? Is the University of Toronto a racist institution?

There are some condemning figures laid before me. Big linen banners in the foyer of Sidney Smith Hall tell me that while 25% of undergraduates at U of T are of Chinese descent, only 2% of the tenured faculty at U of T are Chinese. Beside that cloth of condemnation hangs another, which claims that 55% of U of T students are visible minorities, while only 8.4% of tenured faculty can make that claim. Admittedly, those figures are fairly suspicious. Once, we would have argued that new grad students just coming through the system were of many ethnic backgrounds, that they just hadn't achieved professorship yet. But it has been decades and decades since so-called "visible minorities" became a familiar sight on university campuses. Surely by now some of those people would have attained tenure at U of T?

Dr. Chun raises another good point: Canada sends teams every year to international mathematics and science competitions. Many of these participants are not white. So where are all of these people going? Why are they not becoming professors? Some of them undoubtedly go into business, others into research institutions. But given the high proportion of sharp minds that come through our education systems, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that there would be a higher proportion of non-white, non-male students?

I'm afraid that I cannot keep writing this without attempting to make something perfectly clear. The issue is not supposed to be how many white males become tenured professors as opposed to everybody else. I really don't like the implication that we have to enforce some kind of ratio to make sure that there is the "proper proportion" of each ethnic background to ensure that the tenured population at the University of Toronto matches that of the general population in Toronto, or the undergraduate population at U of T. What this issue is supposed to be about is equality. All of these ratios are supposed to demonstrate that people have an unfair advantage in university based upon their race, that people who are not white face greater barriers to becoming university professors than their white counterparts. Some people -- Dr. Chun included -- would like to create a policy whereas the ethnic makeup of tenured faculty "approximately reflects" that of the student population. I become very wary when I hear such words, because that suggests a quota system -- whether explicit or otherwise. I see a system where -- similar to the way undergraduate mark distributions are handled -- people are pressured to meet the prescribed guidelines for fear of a lot of hassle. The University of Toronto does not have explicit grade ranges -- the Academic Handbook of the Faculty of Arts and Science even says that "the Faculty has no intention of requiring course results to conform to a prescribed pattern." (p. 9) but then it lays out some rather firm "guidelines." If these guidelines are not met, professors must justify why they aren't to their peers -- which is just another way of saying that the guidelines should be followed, in my opinion. I fear that the same trick of "suggestions" would be used to coerce hiring commitees into enforcing racial quotas -- and considering that the point of the exercise should be to eliminate racial bias, that's bad news in my book. It doesn't matter to me whether 5% or 50% of the tenured professors at U of T are white, just so long as they are the best choices for the job, and so long as all people have a chance to compete. (Oh boy. Where did you ever come up with that, Mr. Originality? -- ed.)

But I still haven't addressed the question: Is U of T racist? As I mentioned right at the beginning of this composition, I don't think that anybody ever believes that he is racist. I somewhat doubt that anybody came right out and said "We won't give Kin-Yip Chun tenure because he is Chinese." It's much subtler than that. We are drawing the wrong lines, I think -- this is not a case of white people versus everybody else. It is a question of elites, and patronage, and who one knows, and all of the other "networking" skills Career Centres preach so righteously. Friends tend to hire their friends when looking for possible employees and co-workers. But if you aren't of the right social sphere, you get locked out. It has less to do with the colour of one's skin than with the people one knows. It's disgusting, but it is very much a reality. I am as much a participant in this patronage as anybody else.

Why, you ask? Because I am a Teaching Assistant, and I got my first TA job because I had managed to impress the professor who was doing the hiring that term. Since there is no evaluation process for TAs, nobody knew how incompetent I am, and my previous TA experience makes it much much easier for others to hire me. Already, I am benefiting from patronage. People who look to recruit grad students look for experience like teaching assistantships and research positions -- jobs which generally go to those favoured by existing professors. And I am willing to bet that the people who most often get those cushy grad-school prep jobs have been white males. Do you see? Racism does not ever have to enter the equation. At no step is anybody explicitly racist -- but at every step, decisions are made that makes it harder and harder for "outsiders" to get into the system. It doesn't start at the undergraduate level. It starts all the way back in kindergarten, and its effects become more and more pronounced as one travels up the educational ladder. And that, in my not-too-humble-opinion, is utterly, completely despicable.

That doesn't fully explain why Dr. Chun, who not only had Canadian Citizenship but had earned his bachelor's degree at U of T, was repeatedly passed over for promotion. And such an analysis does not lend itself well to easy solutions. How do we fix this situation? Are quotas -- whether firm or suggested -- the answer? I still want to say that it isn't, but what do I know? An excellent discussion on the Fray explores that issue a lot better than I could.

The other force I suspect is at work here is that of petty office politics. Office politics ruin productivity and ruin lives, but I can't think of the stupidities of politics without getting all hot and bothered, so that discussion is best left until later.

So yes. I think that the University of Toronto is indeed inadvertently racist -- and chauvanistic, and unfair to the uncharismatic, but most of all it is elitist. As I have mentioned in a previous article, elitism is our enemy. Elitism means that only those people who can pass the inconsequential hurdles -- like how much your folks make, who you know, what allies you can make -- can become professors, or become university students in the first place. And yes, I am a racist too, because I am helping support a racist system, and because I still don't want to believe that the bigotry is as widespread as I fear it is -- that supposedly eduacated university professors are petty enough to reject a person, consciously or otherwise, because he or she comes from a different culture, or speaks with an accent, or has minor problems figuring out the agreement between verbs and nouns.

And yes. Although I don't believe in everything that Dr. Chun stands for, I fully stand behind what he is trying to do, because he is trying to change a corrupt system of patronage. He deserves our support. Please, visit the site I mentioned earlier and judge for yourself. Although this news will likely come too late for most of you to care, Dr. Chun has been awarded the privilege of speaking at the University of Toronto Administrative Council (I don't know whether that is the official title) at Simcoe Hall on November 19, 1998, at 4:15pm. Dr. Chun seems to be very excited about this victory, in part because every word that is uttered during those meetings is recorded for the archives. The questions he asks of the administration will have to be answered (he believes) and the answers will be on record for all to see as long as this institution exists. He urges anybody who supports his cause to come out and listen to him speak. If you would like to contact the U of T administration on this issue, the Committee in Support of Justice for Dr. Chun website offers ways in which you can speak out by writing to the Powers That Be.

No. Dr. Chun may not accomplish his goals. But in striving to enact change, to highlight the corruption at this university, I believe he is demonstrating great bravery. The least those of us who believe in what he is trying to accomplish is to show him our support.