September 14, 2000

Margaret Wente

Globe and Mail

Black day for U of T Faculty

On Tuesday evening, more than 30 members of the physics department at the University of Toronto gathered in the department's library. For the next two hours, they met the U of T's new president, Robert Birgeneau, and other senior administrators. The topic: the surprise settlement with Kin-Yip Chun, the man who has, for the past eight years, levelled countless accusations of racism, both privately and publicly, at the U of T and his former colleagues.

The physicists included emeritus professors as well as the department's newest recruit (a female string theorist). They were, and remain, almost unanimously opposed to the deal. Their emotions include anguish, moral outrage, fear for their own futures, and a deep sense of betrayal. These people, some of North America's most capable scientists, believe the university's leaders have capitulated to racial politics and paid the ransom, and the ransom is their own good names.

The university's settlement with its most famous dissident was announced last Friday. It gave Dr. Chun a full-time faculty position, $100,000 in compensation, an estimated $150,000 in legal fees and a $260,000 research start-up fund. To fulfill his job requirements, he must publish only four papers in the next five years; he will also be eligible for tenure.

Dr. Chun has been a cause cÚlÞbre for years. His grievance rests on the fact that, between 1988 and 1992, he was turned down for four tenured faculty positions in the geophysics unit. This unit is a tiny group (five, now six professors) with a towering reputation. (Last month, it won an international award for excellence that has previously gone to MIT and Stanford.) All the jobs for which Dr. Chun applied were won by white men.

Dr. Chun came to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1968 and became a citizen in 1973. His allegations that the old-boy network did him in attracted an immense amount of support, and he became a media and campus hero. Meantime, the physics department's reputation has been shredded. It has been bombarded with e-mails from all over the world asking, in effect: "Why are you crucifying Dr. Chun?" Chairs of other physics departments have warned their students to stay away from the U of T because they see it as racist.

The people who won the jobs Dr. Chun did not -- they include brilliant scientists of world rank -- have felt themselves under a heavy cloud of suspicion. They work in a field that takes fierce pride in merit and excellence -- and that is truly international and multiethnic. And yet they

are thought by the world to be merely privileged and white. Throughout the Chun affair, the university has done very little to correct that impression. Indeed, its settlement reinforced it.

Immediately after Friday's announcement, Dr. Chun declared victory in the media. Dr. Birgeneau said, "We welcome him back to the university community." The news was handled as if there were only one victim -- Dr. Chun.

Dr. Chun was not asked to withdraw any of his allegations -- allegations that had been rejected by both an exhaustive internal review and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He did, however, agree to drop his appeal against the commission, as well as his $1-million lawsuit against the university.

At Tuesday's meeting, faculty members expressed their dismay that Dr. Chun had not retracted his racism allegations as part of the deal. They expressed deep concern about the practical issues of having him re-enter the department. What concerned them most was that there would be no check on him in the future; that if his research or his job review don't go well, the man with a Web site featuring such tidbits as "The Ballad of Dr. Coolie" might play the racism card once again. "He can ask for whatever he wants," says one senior faculty member, "and no one can stop him."

And then Richard Azuma spoke.

Dr. Azuma, a nuclear astrophysicist, has been a principal player in the Chun saga. Now professor emeritus, he was chair of the department during Dr. Chun's first job application, and chaired the search committee the third time he was turned down. He has taught and worked at the U of T for 40 years. Dr. Azuma is half Japanese, half white. He was born in Regina in 1930. He is an expert on racism.

"Every second day, I got beaten up," he recalls. "They used to form a circle around us and call us chinky Japs. I can still remember my father tending my blackened eyes and bloody nose, clenching his fist in anger because he could not do anything."

Dr. Azuma is not afraid of Dr. Chun or fearful for his future at the university, so he is happy to go on the record. This is his own account of what he said to Dr. Birgeneau and the other senior administrators on Tuesday night.

"My father was a hotel bellhop. In 1940, the hotel fired all the Orientals. We moved to Vancouver and, in 1942, my father was sent to a work camp for four years." Richard Azuma and his sister were kicked out of school for being Japanese, and then he went logging.

"I hated myself and I hated the Japanese. My father kept sending me letters telling me how important education was." And so he went back to high school, and finished second in the provincial competitive exams. He got his PhD, and taught in Scotland, where he experienced more racial troubles, and returned to Canada in 1961. "I know what racism is. It's been my life."

Dr. Chun's accusations have, by implication, labelled Dr. Azuma a racist. "The worst thing you can do is accuse somebody of being a racist." And he knows only too well how to spot them. "There has never been in 40 years in my tenure at the University of Toronto a shred of evidence of racism among my colleagues."

At Tuesday's meeting, Dr. Birgeneau was largely silent. Most of the talking was done by Carl Amrhein, the dean of arts and sciences. It was the best deal available, the administrators said. They "understood" the problems of implementing the deal, but offered no ideas how to do it. Nor did they offer any assurance that faculty members would be defended against future charges of racism from within or without.

The physics faculty, too, badly wanted a settlement that would end the Chun affair. They expected he would win something. After all, the university's internal report had admitted a degree of fault, though not racial fault, in its dealings with him. Dr. Chun had been very diligent, a hard worker, though never a star. But the terms of the deal stunned them. What he got was every single thing he wanted -- except a tenured position, for which he will soon be eligible. The research money is, in their world, very large, and the publication requirement is very, very small.

Yesterday, Dr. Amrhein defended the settlement in a telephone interview. "The offer that Dr. Chun accepted was one that had been on the table for a very long time. The university's position is that the settlement is completely consistent with the recommendations of the Yip report [the university's internal review] and that all the relevant policies and procedures apply.

"We believe that the human-rights commission decision establishes with no doubt that there was no racism by our hiring committees. That's been our position all along. I want to underscore as clearly and firmly and publicly as I can that the university stands behind our colleagues in the physics department."

As for Dr. Chun's personal comments over the years, the faculty is on its own. "That has to involve the individuals, not the institution," he says.

"The level of anguish is terrible," one physics professor says, and his views are echoed by others. "The university has made it even worse for us with the solution they've come up with."

The ultimate price of the Chun affair may well be very much higher than the one the university thinks it has paid. It includes the devastation to the morale of dedicated faculty. It includes an implicit invitation to anyone who feels abused to play the racial blackmail card. Worse, it includes the disaffection, and now cynicism, of its best and brightest talent.

"I cannot believe the way the university has treated us, and treated the man who has done his best to destroy us," one professor says. "This is a black day for the University of Toronto."

Posted with permission

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