Faculty frustrated with admin response in Haifan Lin investigation
Several School of Medicine faculty members expressed grievances about the University’s suspension of professor Haifan Lin under a possible China Initiative-related investigation by the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, a member of Lin’s lab reported that the disruption has affected both scientific research and created uncertainty before his students.
In the wake of a prominent School of Medicine professor’s suspension from Yale, faculty members have expressed lingering concerns about due process and damage to the University’s research environment.
Early Wednesday morning, the News reported that Haifan Lin, a professor of cell biology and director of the Stem Cell Center, was placed on paid administrative leave by Yale officials in January following an ongoing criminal investigation into the professor by the U.S. Department of Justice and a related internal University investigation. Hours earlier, Yale officials had sent a letter with details about Lin’s suspension in response to widespread faculty concerns over the matter.
Now, professors continue to assert that the University took premature action against Lin, and many called for his full reinstatement in a joint statement from the faculty of YSM’s Cell Biology Department and the Stem Cell Center, released on Twitter on Thursday afternoon. Additionally, in separate interviews with the News, two School of Medicine professors, both of whom requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation, described an environment of fear for members of Yale’s research community.
“Haifan is a super careful person who follows all rules,” one professor said. “A lot of us junior Asian American scientists basically see, how could we do better than Haifan? Basically, this is what’s going to happen to us next, right? If Haifan can be disappeared, we can be disappeared, easily.”
The joint statement noted that in the case of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Gang Chen, a professor who was arrested by the DOJ under the China Initiative, school officials did not suspend Chen during his investigation, but only after his arrest. The University’s earlier response described the two sets of circumstances “different” and reiterated that the internal investigation is ongoing.
“We have complete confidence in [Lin],” the joint statement reads. “We are equally confident that the Department of Justice investigation will only reveal that he has been the victim of poorly conceived federal policies. This pre-emptory suspension is on the face of it deeply un-American because it applied a penalty to Haifan before due process could be completed and apparently before affording him the chance to defend himself.”
University Vice President of Communications Nathaniel Nickerson did not immediately return a request for comment on the joint statement.
Nearly 100 faculty signed a Mar. 9 letter claiming that due process had been violated in Lin’s case given the lack of apparent evidence of wrongdoing. Six days later, the University Provost and School of Medicine dean sent a response to those faculty, stating that the University was providing Lin with legal protection amid a National Institute of Health inquiry and a Justice Department investigation that alleged Lin had not sufficiently reported instances of “outside support” for his research.
A current member of Lin’s lab, who works closely with Lin and requested anonymity due to concerns of professional retaliation, told the News that members of Lin’s research lab received notification upon Lin’s suspension and were instructed not to contact Lin. Most of Lin’s colleagues outside of his research group, meanwhile, learned of the suspension in late February. Lin’s lab is composed of Lin and eight total graduate and postdoctoral researchers.
The News spoke to six faculty members in the School of Medicine who signed the original Mar. 9 letter. Several, including Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Valerie Horsley and Assistant Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Jack Zhang, said that they appreciated the University’s support of Lin.
Both anonymous professors questioned why the University has chosen to suspend Lin. They both noted that the University could be justifying its actions based on a clause on page 25 of the Faculty Handbook, which allows the University Provost to impose interim measures on pending matters, such as suspensions, “in order to protect the University or an individual complainant or other members of the Yale community.” The University’s response on Wednesday claimed that the National Institutes of Health has provided “credible information” that required an internal investigation and suspension. Nickerson declined to comment on the faculty members’ criticism.
It is not certain whether Lin’s case was being investigated under the China Initiative, which began in 2018 as an anti-espionage effort, but the initial faculty letter, the Thursday statement and numerous faculty members said that they believed this to be true. Representatives from the Justice Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“As an Asian American, this is a delicate situation where I generally feel that the University is supportive, but [there is] this fear and stress that we have experienced in recent years,” said Qin Yan, a professor of pathology.
Several faculty worried that Yale’s research environment and recruitment efforts would suffer amid the uncertainty surrounding Lin’s case.
“I have already seen this type of damage to some trainees who are supposedly the backbone of our country’s future science and technology endeavors,” wrote Rong Fan, a professor of biomedical engineering. “This is a huge concern and the damage is likely very broad and far reaching in our scientific community.”
Diane Krause, the Stem Cell Center’s associate director, has assumed operations at the Center in Lin’s absence. Meanwhile, Lin’s lab has continued to operate in-person, the anonymous researcher said, with various faculty members in the School of Medicine offering guidance.
But most of the research being conducted in Lin’s lab was highly specific to his specialty, the researcher noted, meaning no faculty can replace Lin’s role of advising and guiding research. The lab’s activities have since slowed down, the researcher said.
Projects in the lab typically take years to complete, the researcher added, and Lin’s removal comes at a critical point for several of those projects.
Members of the department’s leadership have met with the researchers to discuss plans moving forward, including the possibility of transfers to different labs. But this would greatly affect members’ graduation plans, the anonymous researcher said.
The Yale School of Medicine was founded in 1810.