A toxic academic mentor exposed after graduate student’s death

Society & Culture

An engineering professor at Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications (NUPT) has been stripped of mentoring duties after her student died, following an explosion at the instructor’s laboratory. While it’s still unclear whether the death was a suicide or an accident, the news has prompted a group of students to come forward accusing the professor of engaging in “abusive” and “exploitive” behavior as a teacher.

The incident happened on the evening of December 25 when Mr. Tán 谭, a second-year master’s student in materials science, was working at his adviser Ms. Zhāng’s 张 lab, which was full of flammable liquids or explosive chemicals. Tan’s body was found the next morning and he was the only casualty reportedly tied to the blast.

While the local police are still investigating the explosion and have not released an official ruling surrounding Tan’s death, many people close to him, including Tan’s mother, believed that he took his own life as a result of an abusive relationship with Professor Zhang.

Per the Southern Weekly (in Chinese), Tan had an argument with Zhang on the day of his death. Tan’s roommates told the Guangzhou-based publication that after being chastised by Zhang, Tan borrowed a lighter from them and headed to the lab, where he stayed past midnight to make sure everyone else had left. 

When talking to Beijing News (in Chinese), people who knew Tan well argued that the dispute on December 25 was not an isolated event. Instead, they suspected that it was Zhang’s long-term verbal and physical abuse that drove the student to suicide. According to them, in the past three years, Zhang has constantly belittled and bullied Tan, exploited him for her own financial gain, and delayed his academic career.  

On January 4, the incident made headlines again, when a video (in Chinese) of Tan’s mother, perched at the top of a school building, wailing and calling for justice for her son, went viral on the Chinese internet.  

Meanwhile, as Tan’s story came to light, more NUPT students took to social media to post complaints against the professor. 

“Zhang is well known among students as a psychopath. Her teaching style is essentially humiliating her students,” a Weibo user commented. 

“I had the ‘luck’ to take her classes before. I’ve seen her scolding female students, throwing chalk at people, and making students stand for hours as a form of punishment,” another Weibo user complained.

In response to the mounting criticism and claims, NUPT released a statement (in Chinese) on January 7, saying that it had launched an investigation into the case and removed Zhang from mentoring duties. NUPT also vowed to have its employees better informed on the school’s code of ethics for educators, and to create a friendly academic environment for its students.

However, NUPT’s pledges were met with widespread doubt by the public after internet users discovered an old article about Zhang (in Chinese), published on the school’s website in 2012. Titled “A delightful road of scientific research,” the piece praises Zhang for “her lenient approach to teaching,” which contradicts the accounts by her former students. A number of internet users are convinced that the university has been covering up Zhang’s misconduct for years and won’t take serious action against her this time.

This is not the first case of an abusive student-teacher relationship to make the news in recent years. In January 2018, a Ph.D. candidate at Xi’an Jiaotong University drowned himself after his dissertation supervisor forced him to overwork and absorb his rages and insults. Later that year, Táo Chóngyuán 陶崇园, a graduate student at Wuhan University of Technology’s School of Automation, jumped to his death after being mentally abused by his supervisor.