Students suffer as supervisors become superiors

A note left by a postgrad who killed himself because he felt ill-treated by his supervisor highlights a worrying trend, says Hong Bing

June 18, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (18 June 2015)

On campuses across China, May and June are generally happy occasions as young people collect their degrees at graduation ceremonies and celebrate with their family and friends. But there was nothing to celebrate in the case of one student who felt ill-treated by his supervisor – only tragedy and unanswered questions.

Jiang Dongshen, a postgraduate at Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province, took his own life, reportedly after failing to pass his thesis defence. He jumped from the sixth floor of the institution’s library. According to the Pengpai news service, he had posted online a note in which he referred to his supervisor in the College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering as “being deliberately obstructive” about his thesis.

In the letter, he is said to have complained that theses of poorer quality submitted by some of his peers had been passed. Mr Jiang, whose parents are agricultural labourers in Henan Province, is also reported to have alleged that the supervisor treated his thesis differently from those of two other postgraduates because the latter “would fix your computer at any time and had a better family background”. The letter is said to have included accusations of impropriety against his supervisor as well.

According to the Guangzhou Daily, CSU has followed up with an official investigation. However, it has also apparently responded to enquiries about Mr Jiang’s death by his brother and his mother by stating that there is no evidence of a link between the student’s death and any actions by the university. Any financial award that the university might offer the family would be only “a certain sum of compensation for humanitarian reasons”, according to the report. Mr Jiang’s supervisor has defended his conduct and has denied any claims that he had acted unfairly over the thesis.

Mr Jiang is reported to have said in his note: “You want me to stay with you, then I will stay with you for ever…I will revisit the College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and the library frequently.”

People can speculate about why Mr Jiang was so desperate, and most would conclude that this is a terrible individual tale. Sadly, however, the tragedy is far from an isolated case.

In early 2008, a PhD candidate at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou posted online claims that he and other students had been mentally and physically abused by their supervisor. Included in the post was a list of the students who consequently ended up not being awarded a master’s or doctoral degree. The claims prompted a university investigation and resulted in an apology from the supervisor.

Following up on broader themes raised by the case, the Guangzhou-based Information Times found that many postgraduate students shared similar complaints about supervisors. It was felt that supervisors treated students as “free labour”; that they often assigned simple and repetitive work to students; that many were driven by self-aggrandisement; and that some even incorporated into published work their students’ research contributions without giving them any credit or acknowledgement.

Thirty years ago, I often heard students speak of their academic mentor using the respectful term “my professor” or the straightforwardly factual “my supervisor”. Nowadays, it has often turned into “my boss”.

Hong Bing is associate professor at the School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai.

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