Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Emory University campus in Atlanta

Emory scientist was told to vacate his office. He says move is reprisal for activism on Asian ties

A tenured professor of anesthesiology at Emory University in Atlanta says he is being targeted by school administrators because of a letter he and other faculty members sent its president urging her to defend foreign scientists on campus and the value of international collaborations.

Shan Ping Yu says his department chair told him on 31 May that he must vacate his office by the end of June. Officials said nothing about finding him another office on campus, Yu says, adding that he was told at a follow-up meeting that “if I don’t move out, they will send people to do it.”

In an 11 June email after that second meeting, the dean of Emory’s medical school, Vikas Sukhatme, told Yu that “your lab space is being adjusted” but wrote that the decision “was in no way influenced by either the letter you signed or your own ethnicity or nationality.” The letter did not mention the plan to take away Yu’s office, which he shares with three students and a postdoc working in his lab.

Yu says he suggested two alternative office arrangements, including the use of recently vacated space, but was told that university officials had specifically identified needing his office at the medical school. When he persisted, Yu says, the chairman told him “you can move to the [Department of Veterans Affairs] medical center” 4 kilometers away.

Yu, who has held an endowed chair since coming to Emory in 2008, says he doesn’t understand “how a tenured faculty member can be treated in this way.” Yu says it would be impossible for him to continue his research and mentoring responsibilities without an office on campus. “I think they want me to leave,” he says, “and this is the first step.”

On 17 March, Yu and eight other faculty members sent a letter to Emory President Claire Sterk asking her to “follow the example” of the presidents of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley in voicing support for “protecting its international faculty and students from any and all kinds of mistreatment and discrimination.” (The letter came after several federal funding agencies, including the National Institutes of Health [NIH], announced actions to prevent foreign governments, particularly China, from improperly acquiring intellectual property developed by U.S.-funded research.) Sterk has not issued such a statement, although she spoke publicly in late February about the need “to promote, celebrate, and honor the voice of each and every member of our community” after the United Methodist Church, which has historic ties to the university, voted to limit the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning church members.

Last month, Emory dismissed two of the signers of the March letter, Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua, after university officials said they had failed to disclose funding and other ties to Chinese institutions in violation of federal policies. A third co-signer has also since left the university. All are Asian, and some have been Emory faculty members for decades.

Yu says Emory officials told him a new junior faculty member in the department needed his office space and suggested Yu’s research productivity was waning. Yu disputes that characterization, noting that he was an investigator on $1.5 million in NIH funding in 2018. Although the two remaining active grants supporting his work are expiring at the end of 2019 and 2020, he says he has submitted proposals to NIH covering fresh lines of research aimed at helping victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. “I have been supported by NIH for many years, and this sort of transition period is common,” he says.

Asked about the demands on Yu, Vincent Dollard, an Emory spokesperson, said in a statement that “Emory and the School of Medicine appreciate Dr. Yu’s contributions.”

He added, “The adjustments to his laboratory space are pursuant to standard [School of Medicine] policies,” in which lab space is assigned based on a formula linked to outside funding. “The medical school is actively working on different options for Dr. Yu’s office and lab space,” Dollard said.