Humanity may one day find alternate mathematical (or, even non-mathematical) formulations of the physics uncovered over the past few centuries. But until then: Complex Numbers, the abstract formulation of Linear Algebra, Calculus on the Complex Plane, and an introduction to Partial Differential Equations, together form the mathematical core of any solid undergraduate education in physics. To tell students such material is graduate-level mathematical physics is — at the very least — misleading. At an institute like the U of MN Duluth (UMD), where students would invariably use it as validation to disengage from such a course altogether, this sort of misinformation holds them back from acquiring the necessary mathematical skills for tackling physics. Such an act of deceit is therefore appropriately labeled as academic fraud. (Note added: It makes it even more fraudulent if it was driven by personal feud/political reasons, as I believe was the case here.)
It is particularly scandalous and egregious, in my opinion, that the perpetrators of such fraud came from a pair of theoretical physicists, i.e., scientists who should know very well what constitutes the mathematical foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, etc.: my colleagues (and married couple) John R. Hiller and Sophia Chabysheva. During Fall 2015, they abused the trust that UMD physics students had placed in their seniority, and quite possibly stunted the academic development of roughly 11 of the 13 students in my Fall 2015 Analytical Methods in Physics course. They did so by repeatedly misleading the students that my course material was a graduate-level one.
(See here for a copy of my course webpage. The lecture notes may also be found here. I spent the majority of my time covering Chapters 1 through 4; and placed heavy emphasis on the abstract formulation of Linear Algebra.
Note for non-physicists: this is a math-for-physics course. Stating, for instance, that the abstract formulation of Linear Algebra is not needed for understanding Quantum Mechanics is like asserting one does not need to learn Biology to become a doctor. You might also wonder what the official description on the course catalog for Phys 3033, Analytical Methods in Physics, actually states:
A survey of analytical methods for the solution of fundamental equations of physics, such as those of Newton, Schrodinger, and Maxwell, and of the underlying mathematics, including complex variables, linear algebra, vector analysis, and ordinary and partial differential equations.
I should mention that John Hiller was in fact the one who set up this course for the first time roughly two years prior, i.e., Fall 2013. Hence this course description was very likely authored by him. This unfortunately only strengthens my hypothesis that the underlying reasons for the behavior by the husband and wife were driven by factors unrelated to academic content/value/merit.)
Towards the end of Spring 2015, John and Sophia had approached me to teach Analytical Methods instead of the Classical Mechanics course my then-Department Head Marc Seigar had initially assigned to me. Apart from trying to help out my colleagues, I agreed to swap classes with them because I am a theorist, and such a math-for-physics course lies very close to my heart. I ended up taking time off my research towards the end of the summer and wrote up a set of notes that became essentially a short textbook, so that the students did not have to purchase one. The textbook that was ordered by John Hiller, who was initially scheduled to teach the course, cost roughly 190 US dollars. I was particularly glad I saved the students quite a bit of money when I later found that one of them was already a father, and was simultaneously juggling school work, child care and a full-time job.
Once the Fall 2015 semester began, Sophia started speaking to me regularly, asking about my course and student attendance. I did not suspect foul play at the time, and transparently provided links to my course webpage, lecture notes, etc. Since she was teaching Classical Mechanics, and her course shared the same students as mine; I merely thought, perhaps, that she was trying to sync our courses somewhat. It was only much later that I was told John Hiller used this information his wife had obtained from me, to complain at the UMD Physics faculty meeting and to my College’s (then-)Dean Joshua Hamilton that I was teaching at the 8000 level (i.e., graduate-level) — all behind my back, and without ever having a discussion with me. During the same semester, on the other hand, I recall even inviting John and Sophia to the theory group’s journal club/seminar series to deliver a talk about their research.
On my end, despite bringing lots of energy to my classroom teaching, I could feel many of the students rapidly falling away. On the weakest students’ homework assignments, I even encouraged them — very politely! — to feel free to come seek my help, but to no avail. In fact, it was the top 2 students who came to me regularly. By mid-semester or so, only a few students remained engaged; and by the final weeks, only the top 2 were still plugged into my material. Even one of the latter 2 blurted out one day in class, that whatever I was teaching then was too hard — that certainly piqued my suspicion that something or someone must have sufficiently emboldened him to state his opinion so openly and forcefully. Given that this was my very first upper level course, and given how much time I had invested in it, my Fall 2015 teaching experience was extremely disheartening.
It was only towards the end of the semester, that two graduate students within the theoretical physics group (who were not taking my class) told me they had heard my course was too difficult. Upon my probing, they revealed they had heard it from Sophia. Everything then made sense to me immediately: since we shared the same students, she must have exploited her platform to tell them my course was inappropriately difficult! Not surprisingly, only 5 out of the 13 students turned up to fill in teaching evaluations at the end of the semester, and all 5 evaluations rated my course as unreasonably arduous. The only consolation was the following unsolicited feedback I received at the end of the semester, from a student double majoring in Math and Physics while he was turning in his final paper:
Thanks for a great semester. While the class was not easy by an [sic] means, it did push me. The linear algebra portion was particularly interesting. It was rigorous enough that three of us were allowed to register for advanced linear algebra (5000 level) as opposed to the 4000 level linear algebra class that’s required by the mathematics degree.
Now, during Fall 2015, I had submitted an internal UMD (EVCAA) grant proposal to support my polishing of the Analytical Methods lecture notes over summer 2016 (i.e., the following year). While I did not get the grant, my then-Department Head Marc Seigar (whom I recall was on the grant committee) did kindly, in response, put me down to teach Analytical Methods again during Fall 2016. I distinctly remembered Marc coming to my office to tell me so; and I even asked if Hiller would be comfortable with the arrangement since John was the one who started the course 2 years prior.
However, during Spring 2016, Marc Seigar brought me into a meeting with Vitaly Vanchurin — who hired me starting Fall 2014, so I was considered the latter’s research postdoc — and informed the both us that he had just held my annual performance evaluation meeting with our College’s Dean, Joshua Hamilton. Given the poor teaching evaluations and given Hiller had brought his complaints directly to the Dean himself, Hamilton was rather displeased with my teaching of the Fall 2015 Analytical Methods course and had applied pressure on Seigar to assign me to teach only discussion sections. It was then I informed both Marc and Vitaly that I strongly suspected foul play, that both Hiller and Chabysheva had back-meddled with my class, directly misleading the students about my material. I remembered Marc Seigar — looking down at the floor — mumbling to himself: why, given Hiller hardly showed up in the Physics Department and given he did not receive stellar teaching evaluations himself, John’s opinions should be valued at all. At the end of this meeting, I made sure to register with Marc Seigar my desire to teach Analytical Methods again in the Fall (of 2016). Later, in a one-on-one meeting with Marc, he re-confirmed that Hiller had indeed brought his complaints all the way up to Dean Hamilton. My publication rate was also criticized in my performance evaluation, according to Seigar; and during this 1-on-1 meeting with Marc, he revealed this came from John Hiller as well.
Prior to this turn of events, I had decided I would simply be upfront with my next batch of Analytical Methods students and let them know, without naming names, they would likely be misinformed by other faculty that mine was a 8000-level course. But I would go on to assure them that, while challenging, the class would prove very useful to their understanding Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, etc. With this turn of events, however, I decided to write to my former (Fall 2015) students to obtain firm evidence of back-meddling. To this end, I created the following anonymous online survey:
Did Sophia Chabysheva (and possibly John Hiller) openly discuss her views on how and what was being taught in Phys 3033 [the Analytical Methods course], during Fall 2015 itself (i.e., while the class was in session)? If so, can you elaborate on what she (or they) said? And, how frequently did she (or they) do so?
Altogether, 3 students responded; the results can be found here. This was towards the end of Spring 2016, so an intervening semester had gone by. Let me highlight the third student’s testimony. Not only did Sophia Chabysheva mislead my students “a couple times a month” he went on to corroborate my fears, that students’ development were indeed held back:
Dr Chabysheva remarked that … he (Dr Chu) was pushing too hard of a topic. At the time, I often agreed with Dr Chabysheva, blaming the difficulty of material for my struggles rather than my own lack of ambition.
Is there any ounce of truth to the assertion that I was teaching at the graduate level? Physicists amongst my readers can readily discern it for yourselves; but here, the student in fact debunks it quite unequivocally:
After getting through the course, I am extremely grateful to Dr Chu for having put in the extra effort in order to teach us a quality Analytical Methods course. The topics discussed have come up numerous times in my other undergraduate courses, and I owe my increased GPA to Dr Chu.
Armed with such concrete evidence, in an e-mail dated 25 April 2016, I went on to write to my then-Department Head Marc Seigar to file a formal complaint against John R. Hiller and Sophia Chabysheva. I not only detailed how Sophia and John sabotaged my course and held back my students’ academic growth; I further pointed out John Hiller’s problematic attitude towards education likely extended beyond my Analytical Methods course. Specifically, a graduate student had told me how, when taking Hiller’s course, John would become unhappy when the former attempted to use methods not taught in class to solve problems. Additionally, Hiller made the same student jump through hoops —
solve miscellaneous problems — just to prove the latter was worthy of access to some supplementary material provided to John by Emeritus Professor Thomas Jordan. [Edit 22 November 2017: I was just informed the problems were not “miscellaneous”.]
Unfortunately, Marc Seigar — for political and personal career-advancement reasons that require some explanation; see side story below — had very likely by then, already dismissed all of my concerns and reduced them to a mere “differences in opinion” between Hiller/Chabysheva and I regarding how to teach Analytical Methods. During a short meeting between Marc, Vitaly, and I soon afterwards, Marc Seigar, in fact, asked Vitaly precisely that; i.e., “Isn’t it just a difference of opinion?” It was only after posing his rhetorical question, that Seigar revealed he was not able to access the above online survey whose link I had provided in my e-mail. In other words, he likely had an opinion/verdict already, without bothering to assimilate the concrete evidence I had provided. On the other hand, in the e-mail response Marc Seigar sent on the same day of my formal complaint, he did not address the central issues regarding the academic fraud itself, but thought it was “important to clarify” that Dean Hamilton had “never directly told me to remove you as instructor for Phys 3033”. (What was the above-mentioned post-performance-evaluation Chu-Seigar-Vanchurin meeting about, then?) Seigar also went on to state that he had “no evidence” Hiller went to the Dean regarding my teaching.
Puzzled, I wrote back to ask:
… as far as timeline goes, is it not accurate to assert, after my submission of the EVCAA R&S grant (last semester) you kindly placed me to teach Phys 3033 again in the Fall; but after your meeting with the Dean a couple of weeks ago, I was removed from the schedule?
I never received a reply. Furthermore, afterwards, Seigar never held a single discussion with me addressing the specifics of either my course nor the details of my allegations against John and Sophia.
Marc Seigar did state in the above e-mail he would attempt to arrange a meeting with everyone involved. But that never happened either. What he did do instead was to hold a meeting with John, Sophia, and Vitaly; very likely to isolate me, politically speaking. (Vanchurin was on his way to tenure that year, and thus had significant incentives to go along with Seigar’s political moves and to withdraw his support for me.) The official reason why the meeting did not occur — revealed to me by Seigar only much later, was that Hiller had simply refused to meet me, because the latter thought it was “not worth his time”.
On the other hand, it was nearly a year after my course was sabotaged by Hiller and Chabysheva, and after 3 months of waiting for a substantive reply from my then-Department Head Seigar to my end-April formal complaint — did I decide to take matters into my own hands. I wrote a harsh e-mail, dated 27 July 2016, directly to both Hiller and Chabysheva, detailing their academic fraud. Chabysheva retorted back, essentially blaming the difficulty of my course for poor attendance in her class. As for Hiller — and here, the perils of tenure were on full display — he hit back with self-righteous nonsense, talking down to me:
If you are to move forward with an academic career, or any career, you need to learn to take advice from those with more experience, rather than following only your own ideas and then lashing out when your approach isn’t accepted.
In the same rebuttal, he also lied rather blatantly that he had advised me on how to teach the course but I had ignored it “both in content and methods”. (In reality, the only exchange Hiller and I had about the course content was John’s explanation of why he chose the ~$190 textbook I mentioned earlier.)
The action was swift: Marc Seigar — for the sake of professional transparency, I had copied the e-mails to him — went straight to Human Resource and wrote a formal cease-and-desist letter to shut down the exchange. When I tried to clarify with him what that was about, he conveniently pointed out, he saw no reason why I should be further involved in the physics curriculum since I had a 100% research appointment in the upcoming 2016-2017 academic year. (Joshua Hamilton had, in the meantime, removed me from teaching duties for my 3rd and final year as a postdoctoral associate at UMD because he did not want to deal with me; see side story below.) Marc then went on to state he had spent “many hours talking to all parties involved” — as already stated above, after my formal complaint, I do not recall having a single substantive discussion with him about my Analytical Methods course — and has concluded “… this is simply a difference in opinion and philosophy over how a particular course should be taught. It is nothing more than that.” He did, however, take the opportunity to chide me, saying I had a tendency to “send out e-mails at odd hours of the day/morning” — why this is of any relevance, I do not know — and as my “mentor” he tells me I need to learn to “accept the situation” and “move on”.
When Fall 2016 finally came around, I noticed Marc Seigar had been promoted to Associate Dean — i.e., working directly under Joshua Hamilton.
A Side Story
What happened to the Marc Seigar of Fall 2015, whom I believe recognized my teaching effort then, and had put me down to teach Phys 3033 again during Fall 2016?
During mid Spring 2016, the Dean of my College, Joshua Hamilton, tried to fire me by the end of December 2016. The verbal excuse provided, as transmitted via my then-Department Head Marc Seigar, was that UMD’s College of Science and Engineering was under severe budget constraints. Initially, over e-mail, I tried to negotiate in good faith: for instance, offering to have my salary voluntarily cut by 25% (the amount the school was supposedly unable to fork out) as long as I could remain employed full time till the end of the academic year. This latter condition, that my job was to last till end May 2017, was actually the very first sentence of my offer letter.
I took the effort to explain, as a foreigner in the US, this would be a severe disruption because my stay here was tied to my employment status; and being mid-Spring the postdoc application season was largely over. I also tried to point out the value I believe I had brought to the academic community here. However, Hamilton appeared to be stonewalling, and unfortunately I had to let him know, if he was not interested in negotiating in good faith, I had no choice but to sue him and UMD. (As a side note, I have never met Joshua Hamilton in person in a professional setting. Vitaly had suggested that I meet him in person to negotiate but Marc Seigar discouraged me from doing so, hinting that the Dean himself was not a particularly pleasant person to deal with face-to-face.)
Thankfully, the leaders of the postdoctoral associate organization based in the U of MN Twin Cities campus referred me to the Office of Conflict Resolution (OCR), which I promptly contacted. Julie Showers of OCR kindly informed me that the U of MN needed to prove it was suffering a financial emergency in order to legitimately fire a postdoc before her/his term was up.
The upshot was that Joshua Hamilton had no choice but to reinstate my position. But in doing so, he deliberately removed me from my teaching duties. Later on, he got my then-Department Head Marc Seigar to tell me in person, this was because he (Hamilton) “did not want to deal with” me.
It had turned out the performance evaluation meeting Seigar had held with Hamilton, which led to the Chu-Seigar-Vanchurin meeting delineated above, was actually not part of protocol. Instead, my performance review had to be written by Seigar himself. I had thought it to be a mere formality at the time, but was slightly taken aback when I noticed Marc Seigar took the opportunity to write a scathing report on me — from criticizing my e-mails to the Dean to stating my teaching needed improvement. In a face-to-face meeting I politely pushed back, and only then did Seigar tone down his wording. Marc Seigar’s demeanor and body language over the course of Spring 2016 left me really quite bewildered; and things only made much more sense when I saw him promoted to Associate Dean during Fall 2016. During the time while I was still fighting to keep my job, Marc Seigar once gleefully remarked to Vitaly Vanchurin (in my presence), that if I were fired soon Seigar would not have to deal with my complaints of academic fraud.
I cannot help but wonder, did Joshua Hamilton really have such severe budget constraints in the first place? Half of my first 2 years’ of wages came, in fact, from my teaching duties — and hence, at least as I understood it, directly from the UMD Physics Department itself (as opposed to the College). Now that I did not have to teach, Hamilton must be spending more of the College’s money just so that he did not have to deal with me? If so, has the Dean himself put the College in more debt — and likely wasted tax payers’ money, given U of MN is a public school — solely for his personal vendetta? And, why is this not financial fraud?
Honor does not pay
UMD was my 3rd postdoctoral position, after my 2nd one at the University of Pennsylvania. I received my postdoctoral offer from Vitaly Vanchurin sometime in January 2014 and was given very little time to decide. A week after I accepted his offer, I got an offer from CEA Saclay, a far more prestigious institute than UMD. As a scientist, however, I value integrity very highly and turned it down right away, explaining I had already accepted another offer.
Given the appallingly low academic and professional standards held by faculty and leadership at UMD, I am afraid I can only state: honor does not pay — I regretted that decision!
During the January 2014 Skype meeting/interview with Vanchurin, he told me he was trying to build a theory group. (He also hired two others, and implied he will try to keep all of us around, but my other two colleagues left after only a year due to unfavorable circumstances here at UMD.) He told me he would treat his hires as “equals” but in reality Vitaly treated me as his graduate student. Whereas — while we did not get the money — I even wrote 2 grants with him in which I contributed significant ideas. On the other hand, Vanchurin’s rather abrasive style had led him to step on both Joshua Hamilton and John Hiller’s toes very badly. I do not think it is unreasonable to guess, I was probably political cannon fodder for their conflicts, and this is why I experienced so much trouble at UMD.
As of summer 2017, all 3 of Vanchurin’s M.S. students had left his group. One of them — whom I co-mentored — spent the past 2 years or so working with him, only to be told his [the student’s] work was essentially trivial. In truth, the student successfully wrote a robust numerical code to solve a large class of 1-dimensional Euclidean Quantum Field Theories, certainly enough work to graduate with a Master’s degree from UMD.
An Open Letter to (former) Dean Joshua Hamilton and Associate Dean Marc Seigar
In accordance to local Minnesotan culture, I had shown you a lot of deference while you were serving as Department Head. But now that I am no longer under your purview, I’m afraid I have to be rather straightforward here.
- As an astrophysicist by training, I am sure you know enough of Quantum Mechanics to know how fundamental the abstract formulation of Linear Algebra is. Why did you repeatedly talk past me, phrasing it as either a “conflict resolution” issue or a “physics curriculum” issue — but not addressing the detailed complaints I lodged, when the evidence is clear: John and Sophia repeatedly lied to my students I was teaching at the 8000-level. How could you say in good faith you spent “hours speaking to everyone involved” when you never spoke to me after I lodged my complaints? Did you even bother to read the evidence? For that matter, did you even bother to read my complaint e-mail?
- Did you feel the strong need to align yourself with your then-upcoming boss Joshua Hamilton — in order to secure your promotion to Associate Dean — given how vindictive he appears to be? This is not a frivolous question. Your answer would indicate where your self-interests were, and whether as Dept Head you were still acting in the interests of upholding the highest standards of learning and science education. To pose the questions bluntly: did you lie about Hiller back-stabbing me in front of Hamilton — you clearly indicated that to me in private — and did you also lie about Hamilton asserting implicit or explicit pressure on you to remove me from teaching Analytical Methods again during Fall 2016?
Josh and Marc:
I am fully aware that Vitaly Vanchurin is on rather poor terms with both you, Joshua Hamilton, and John R. Hiller. I am equally sensitive to the distinct possibility that the multiple difficulties the three hires by Vanchurin faced — even, for instance, having to fight for the right to apply for NSF grants, despite promised the opportunities to do so before we arrived — is due to his severe lack of diplomatic skills.
But both of you are leaders at your respective academic institutions. Should you not be the adults in the room?
Allow me to also make a few somewhat more personal remarks here.
Academia in the United States enjoys paying lip service towards the notion of “diversity”. I have Moebius Syndrome, a one-in-100,000-births-rare disability, which affects my appearance; clarity of speech; and ability to communicate with facial expressions. Despite that, I have not allowed it to hold me back from showing tremendous enthusiasm towards teaching/mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students. Here at UMD, I regularly receive positive feedback for my discussion sections — for instance, during the end of my final semester of teaching here (i.e., Spring 2016), one of my students made sure to thank me, in person, for “giving a damn”. (While I very much appreciated the gratitude, his comments reinforced my worry regarding the academic culture here at UMD, something that both of you are not helping at all to improve.) More importantly — as an experienced theoretical physicist — by writing a short textbook for the students, I brought my personal perspective on the mathematical tools required for understanding physics. I saved them the ~190 dollars they each would have otherwise paid for the course. By raising the academic standards, 3 of them double majoring in Math and Physics were placed into the more advanced version of the Math Department’s Linear Algebra course. Additionally, the student quoted above clearly stated he felt my course helped raised his GPA. On top of all these, within the theoretical physics group led by Vanchurin, I have consistently taken time away from my own research to co-mentor a number of his graduate students, one of whom has recently been admitted into a PhD program in Canada. Research-wise, I have written a number of single-author papers on gravitational wave physics while at UMD; and also helped find exact analytic solutions to a class of theories constructed by Vitaly Vanchurin and his former MS Thesis student Daniel Schubring.
Despite the value I have brought to UMD’s academic community, I have been threatened with premature and illegimate termination; received scathing performance reviews in retailation for pushing back; had my teaching duties revoked; was told by my then-Department Head that the Dean of my College does not want to deal with me; had my detailed evidence-based assertions that colleagues had misled my students summarily dismissed by a Department Head who was more intent on talking past me — calling himself my “mentor” just so he can gas light me on several occasions — and more interested in telling me I needed to learn to “move on”. Whereas the very persons who committed serious academic fraud, i.e., John R. Hiller and Sophia Chabysheva, and who helped sabotage my Analytical Methods course, were instead assigned to teach it during Fall 2016. By Fall 2016, we had at least 3 other theoretical physicists in the Department, not including me, who could have taught the class — allowing the perpetrators of academic fraud to teach the very same course is a fine example of how perverted the reward structure is within academia.
As the leaders of UMD’s College of Science and Engineering — and, especially for Marc Seigar, who has repeatedly called yourself my “mentor” — does your professional conduct serve as an excellent example of how to treat with respect disabled members of your academic community who exert extra effort to challenge students to grow intellectually? You had the power and authority to set the proper tone for the College, to ensure that the highest standards of professionalism and academic inquiry were upheld. All it would have taken is a firm but civil conversation with John Hiller and Sophia Chabysheva, to let them know they had, by providing students false information, violated basic standards of academic integrity; and by disrespectfully sabotaging my course without ever once attempting to communicate with me while I was running it, they had also set an extremely poor example of professional conduct. Instead, it appears you have chosen to play petty politics and catered to your personal career interests.
I don’t know about you both; but in my view, science education itself is a far higher calling that ought to transcend the petty but damaging politics that I am witnessing here. What is the point of holding your privileged positions at UMD and RIC, if you do not value with the highest priority the integrity of serious information transmitted to students by faculty? Both of you are scientists: a toxicologist/biochemist and an astrophysicist. Would you like to point your graduate students to my blog post, so that they can learn from you as role models of academic, professional and scientific honesty?
Yi-Zen Chu, October 2017
Update I followed up with a letter to the leaders at U of MN Twin Cities & Duluth, as well as Rhode Island College.