Shanghai university professor suspended after student suicide

Lu Jingwei Photo: The Beijing News

China's prestigious Tongji University in Shanghai has suspended a professor from her post over accusations of overworking one of her student who committed suicide.

Lu Jingwei, 24, a postgraduate at Tongji's School of Medicine, jumped to his death on December 13.

Lu Jingwei's family held his supervisor in oncology Lu Yanjun accountable for the death, alleging that the professor had forced the student to work "ceaselessly" for her.

"Since July 2015, Lu Jingwei has worked for his supervisor Lu Yanjun, without vocations and without pay," read a letter appeared to be written by Lu's parents.

"Most of the work had nothing to do with Lu Jingwei's postgraduate courses, but was done to help pursue fame and fortune for Lu Yanjun," the letter said.

"In December, Lu Jingwei told Lu Yanjun that he hoped to graduate in the coming June and abandon the writing of two complicated essays unrelated to graduation," the letter read.

"The demand was dismissed by Lu Yanjun, who threatened to prevent Lu Jingwei from receiving a master's degree from Tongji if he failed to finish the papers."

The letter also claimed that Lu Jingwei's dream of pursuing the doctorate was broken by Lu Yanjun's unreasonable time-costing assignments.

"Lu Jingwei often skipped classes to work for Lu Yanjun, which resulted in his unsatisfactory academic performance," said the letter.

"Lu Jingwei sent a message to Lu Yanjun via WeChat shortly before his death, saying, 'I'm going to jump off a building. Professor Zhang Xiaoqing, the vice dean of the medical school, will be looking to speak with you," the letter said.

The message apparently fell on deaf years and no preventive action was taken by the school.

The letter by the family was posted on China's Twitter-like Weibo on Friday, and has been reposted over 22,000 times.

In interviews with China's leading finance magazine Caixin, several Tongji students said that they often experienced heavy academic pressure from supervisors.

"To improve its ranking, the school requests affiliated colleges to publish more papers and take on more projects," said one of them on condition of anonymity, "The burden would finally fall on the shoulders of students."

The incident has aroused widespread attention after media reports, and many netizens have denounced Lu Yanjun's alleged act of overworking her student, as well as Tongji's negligence in regulating its teaching faculty members' behaviors.

In a public response, Zhu Dazhang, a spokesman for Tongji, on Monday said that the school has opened a probe into the case, and that Lu Yanjun has temporarily been barred from teaching.

"We haven't found any clear evidence to suggest that Lu Jingwei's death was due to being overworked by Lu Yanjun, who is currently abroad for 'medical treatment'," said Zhu.

It is not the first time that the strained relationship between supervisors and students at Chinese universities has come under spotlight.

Tao Chongyuan, a postgraduate at Wuhan University of Technology's School of Automation in Central China's Hubei Province, jumped off the sixth floor of his dormitory building in March, reportedly after being mentally abused by his supervisor, Professor Wang Pan.

Tao's sister wrote on her Weibo account that her brother was coerced into assisting Wang with his personal affairs and even addressing him as "father".

GaoYan, a female student at the elite Peking University, took her own life in 1998 at the age of 21, after allegedly being raped by a visiting Chinese scholar, named Shen Yang, at the school.

Shen, 62, was sacked by his two employers, Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University, over "ethical misconduct" after a public outcry last year.

Widespread phenomenon

According to Ma Bo, one of Lu Jingwei's classmates, the phenomenon of supervisors overworking students are very common on campus, despite differences in manner and degree.

"It's more serious in high-demanding engineering fields like chemistry, biology, and environics," said Ma. "Administrators can't control supervisors, so they tend to let them do as they want, even if unfair treatments come into being."

Chen Le, another student at Tongji's School of Medicine, said that supervisors had strict requirements, so she had to rush to the laboratory every day, and frequently had no time for meals.

"I was so helpless that I cried every day," said Chen.

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