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Black day for a white faculty
Thursday, September 14, 2000
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 c閘鑒re 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
"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."
September 14, 2000
Letter to the Editor
The Globe and Mail
444 Front St. West
Toronto, Ont. M5V 2S9
Margaret Wente抯 Sept. 14 column about the Chun case (Black
Day for a White Faculty) serves only to diminish the tangible
progress that the university, its physics department and Dr. Kin-Yip
Chun have made in resolving a long-standing and deeply hurtful
situation. The Globe and Mail抯 use of a grossly insensitive and
inaccurate headline to refer to a multi-racial department is but one
The agreement with Dr. Chun is not about racial discrimination. The
Ontario Human Rights Commission抯 decision not to refer the case
to a board of inquiry, as well as the university抯 own exhaustive
investigations into Dr. Chun抯 claims are unequivocal: the University
of Toronto in general and the physics department in particular were
not racist in their dealings with Dr. Chun.
The university抯 investigations did find evidence that Dr. Chun was
exploited in his work at the university, however, and over the more
than six years of this conflict, the university has been consistent and
highly public in its wish to find a resolution and get Dr. Chun back to
work. The agreement was structured solely to accomplish this and
allow a vitally important healing process to begin. The financial
portions of the agreement are also consistent with that commitment,
and the research start-up funds reflect the real costs of doing
research in physics.
Contrary to Ms. Wente抯 column, Dr. Chun has been appointed to a
non-tenure-stream research position, and thus he is not eligible for
tenure. But he is eligible to apply for any tenure position for which he
Ms. Wente抯 account of our interview regarding my colleagues in the
physics department is also seriously incomplete and implied that the
university would have no role in the healing process that must take
place between Dr. Chun and his colleagues. There have been a
number of deeply hurtful and painful personal comments made about
individuals over the years, and my colleagues see these as largely
unresolved. That resolution must happen but it can only begin when
Dr. Chun and the geophysicists interact as individuals. The university
and I are fully supportive of our colleagues and will work with them
to put this painful chapter behind us.
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science
Copy of letter sent.
Published: September 16, 2000
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