January/February 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 3

Why Have We, a Group of MIT Faculty, Signed the Letter in Support of Gang Chen?

Because if such a prominent citizen of our country, a loyal American, a person who has raised his children here, a beloved teacher and scientist who has dedicated his creativity and energy to his students and MIT and this country, is criminally targeted for routine scientific and educational activities, we are all at risk. Questioning his loyalty is an outrage, and reminds us of dark periods in history. We therefore felt it imperative to step up to defend our colleague and, more broadly, to protect the fundamental freedoms of scientific research and open education. The last line in the Letter – “We are all Gang Chen” – captures our feelings and concerns.

As the faculty are aware, on January 14, 2021, Professor Gang Chen was arrested by the U.S. Attorney and FBI on allegations of federal grant fraud. President Reif noted in his message to the community that “For all of us who know Gang [as a widely respected scholar, teacher and member of our faculty since 2001], this news is surprising, deeply distressing and hard to understand.” Shortly following this news, a group of faculty gathered to discuss the case. Serious questions emerged in that meeting regarding the factual basis of the published allegations, and the group decided to bring these concerns to the attention of President Reif in an “open” letter, signed now by approximately 200 faculty from across five Schools.

Here is a timeline summarizing events and perspectives surrounding Professor Gang Chen’s arrest and the faculty Letter:

1.22.20: Professor Chen’s cell phones and computer are searched and confiscated at the border by the INS when he returns from a trip to China.

1.14.21 Thursday: Professor Chen is arrested at his residence, search warrants are executed at MIT and the Chen residence, a criminal complaint is filed. In a press conference U.S. Attorney Lelling and FBI Agent Bonavolonta announce criminal complaints, among them: “. . . he [Chen] knowingly and willfully defrauded [the public] out of $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our system to enhance China’s research in nanotechnology.” And “. . . he even went as far as recommending several students to participate in various Chinese talent programs.” (FBI Special Agent J. Bonavolonta, Press Conference Remarks on fbi.gov).

1.14.21 Thursday: President Reif announces the arrest to the MIT community, expressing that “MIT was deeply distressed by the arrest of Professor Chen.”

1.14.21 Thursday: The global media reports on the arrest, extensively citing the government’s allegations: “MIT Professor Gang Chen Charged With Millions In Grant Fraud, Hiding China Ties” (WBZ CBS Boston,12:07 pm)

1.15.21 Friday 4 pm: A group of faculty (~20) assembles online to discuss the criminal complaint, the allegations presented at the press conference, and other open-source material. Serious questions emerge in that meeting regarding the factual basis of the allegations in the criminal complaint and press conference summary on the fbi.gov website. The group decides to take action by writing an “open” letter to President Reif.

1.16.21 Saturday: Draft Letter is written and refined. The Letter details apparent factual errors in the criminal complaint and multiple misleading statements on fbi.gov. The Letter also expresses concern about the ethnic targeting of faculty of Chinese heritage by the DOJ’s “China initiative” and the chilling effect on scientific research. This version (1.19.21) requests President Reif’s support for Professor Chen.

1.19.21 Tuesday 11:49 am: The Letter is circulated (peer to peer) and signatures start accruing.

1.19.21 Tuesday: Criminal indictment U.S. vs. Chen is filed with U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. No reference is made to multiple allegations mentioned only a few days earlier in the complaint.

1.21.21 Thursday 4:43 pm: An updated letter (>100 signatures were received) is sent to President Reif, including a statement of appreciation for MIT’s ongoing financial support of Professor Chen (the knowledge of this support was not in the public domain at the time).

1.22.21 Friday 6:51 am: Letter comes out in social media via a Harvard professor and is featured in the Chinese media.

1.22.21 Friday: The Wall Street Journal references the Letter as part of its “Amnesty” story.

1.22.21 Friday 4:43 pm: President Reif releases a detailed explanation of the MIT–SUSTech relationship as an institutional relationship, clarifying that the $19M of funds went to MIT and benefited MIT’s mission and multiple faculty and students.

1.22.21 Friday 7:02 pm: LAW360 piece is posted, “MIT Profs Back Colleague Facing ‘Flawed’ Fraud Charges”.

1.22.21 Friday 7:09 pm: The Boston Globe piece is published, “MIT President and Faculty members defend professor arrested for China ties”.

1.23.21 Saturday: 135 signatures are sent to President Reif (in confidence).

1.26.21 Tuesday 11:56 am: The New York Times, “A scientist is arrested and academics push back”.

1.26.21 Tuesday: The Conversation, “Intense scrutiny of Chinese born researchers in the U.S. threatens innovation”.

1.27.21 Wednesday: Bloomberg, “Criminalizing Science is Really Dumb”.

1.27.21 Wednesday: The final version of the Letter (with minor changes) posted on FNL website (MIT Faculty Newsletter).

1.28.21 Thursday: ~200 MIT faculty sign the Letter.

1.29.21 Friday: WBUR airs a piece on the arrest and the Letter, “MIT Faculty Rally Around Professor Charged with Concealing China Ties”.

1.30.21 Saturday: “We are all Gang Chen” change.org petition started by faculty at Northwestern University.

2.5.21 Friday: Science Magazine, “U.S. scientists want Congress to look into complaints of racial profiling in China Initiative”.

2.10.21 Wednesday: U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling tenders his resignation to President Biden.

As this timeline suggests, the concept of a “golden hour” apparently applies not only to trauma medicine but also to situations where the reputation of a colleague is assaulted by powerful forces and then upheld by rapid action taken by his peers and colleagues. After the arrest of Professor Gang Chen, our community mobilized quickly. In a little more than two days, the number of signatures on the Letter in support of Gang Chen grew from 0 to 100 and has continued to grow ever since. We had to move fast, to clarify facts we knew and help turn the tide.

A meaningful shift in the media’s reporting on Professor Chen’s case occurred the afternoon of Friday, 1.22, coinciding with the release of the Letter and President’s Reif’s press release. The press initially described Professor Chen’s case in terms of allegations of large “eye popping” (NYT) amounts of money, greed, hiding ties, and disloyalty. Since the release of the Letter that Friday, the public’s perspective as reflected in the media has changed significantly to highlight the extraordinary support of Professor Chen by President Reif and the MIT faculty. The detailed questions that our Letter had raised are now framing the public discourse. This change came not a moment too soon for our colleague and his family, who saw his reputation destroyed and his loyalty questioned.

Whereas the brunt of this case is certainly personal, felt primarily by Professor Chen, his family and his friends, the impact of the DOJ’s “China Initiative” campaign reaches far beyond the Chen residence and affects us all. This campaign that our colleague Gang Chen got caught up in appears to be a deliberate attempt to intimidate rather than an effort to increase compliance.

We are aware of many MIT faculty and students of Chinese heritage who feel targeted, fearful, and intimidated. All of us understand the disastrous impact of this campaign on science, on research, and on education – and frankly on the future of this country. We are concerned about the emergence of clear signs of ethnic targeting of scientists of Chinese heritage who are loyal citizens of this country. We view the persecution of researchers of Chinese heritage as damaging to our national interests and to the quality of research in this country. One cannot embrace science and facts while creating an atmosphere of fear for scientists.

MIT’s faculty understand competition. Science and engineering at the level practiced at MIT and other research universities in this country are highly competitive, in particular with China. Yet our research universities continue to attract global talent that advances domestic science and engineering here in the U.S., which helps create jobs and build our national brain trust. It is not by chance that a major Covid-19 vaccine was developed a block from MIT’s campus, where so much research is aimed at generating innovative therapies. Engaging and attracting global talent advances our competitiveness and is truly an American interest.

On the MIT campus, we are engaged in basic research that is ultimately published and put in the public domain. As such, we do not conduct classified or other commercially confidential work here. We fully understand and respect the importance of disclosures to federal and other funding agencies; as individuals, and as a community we spend significant time, energy, and other resources to comply. The complexity of disclosure forms and the associated red tape have grown significantly in recent years, increasing the likelihood of making mistakes. We are not above the law: when we make a mistake or omit information, we should be held responsible.

We truly hope that lawmakers of both parties, together with the new administration, will engage academia in search for solutions that will appropriately address the concerns of illegitimate IP transfer to China. However, bringing the heavy machinery of the federal justice system – such as “wire fraud” statutes developed and honed to deal with organized crime – into the halls of science, engineering, math, and education is damaging the very same American innovation it seeks to protect. Fear kills creativity and collaboration, the characteristics that bring the best minds from around this country and abroad to our universities, and that have contributed to making our institutions of higher learning the global leaders that they are.

We are proud to see the Institute take a strong position in defense of Professor Chen. MIT’s leadership in this matter stands in contrast to other universities that have distanced themselves or even severed ties with accused members of their own communities. We have been made aware that MIT was in fact supporting Professor Chen well before we all knew about this case, and we wholeheartedly commend MIT and President Reif for his courage and support.

“We are all Gang Chen” has become a rallying cry for the cause of science, academic freedom, the importance of global scientific collaborations – and to stand against the criminalization of academic activities, to object to ethnic targeting of scientists of Chinese heritage, and to vocally protest the unjust treatment of our colleague.

In closing, it is our hope that the Letter, a collegial expression of outrage and support, working in concert with MIT’s institutional actions and coupled with efforts at other universities nationwide, will help Professor Chen return to his research and teaching in the near future.

For comments and to add your signature to the “MIT Faculty Letter to President Reif in Support of Professor Gang Chen” please email: Professor Yoel Fink (yoel@mit.edu).

Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

Robert Armstrong, Director, MIT Energy Initiative, Chevron Professor in Chemical Engineering

Moungi Bawendi, Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry

Sangeeta Bhatia, John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,

Claude Canizares, Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics

Robert Desimone, Director, McGovern Institute, Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Yoel Fink, Professor of Materials Science, Joint Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Alan Guth, Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics

Anette (Peko) Hosoi, Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Yasheng Huang, Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management

Wolfgang Ketterle, John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics

Thomas Kochan, Geo Maverick Bunker Professor of Management

Ruth Lehmann, Professor of Biology; Director, Whitehead Institute

Harvey Lodish, Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering; Founding Member, Whitehead Institute

Keith Nelson, Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry

Yang Shao-Horn, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy

Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor and Professor of Biology

Michael Sipser, Donner Professor of Mathematics

Peter So, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biological Engineering

Timothy Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry

Emma Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations

Kim Vandiver, Professor and Director of the Edgerton Center

George Verghese, Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering

Jing Wang, S C Fang Professor of Chinese Language & Culture

Rainer Weiss, Professor of Physics, Emeritus