June 18, 2004

Vanderbilt’s portrayal in Science controversial

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Mai Wang, center, a recent graduate from the Cancer Biology program, raised her concerns to Medical School leadership at the forum. The forum addressed the recent article published in Science, which sparked concern among many international students regarding Vanderbilt's attitude towards the international community. Photo by Dana Johnson

Vanderbilt’s portrayal in Science controversial

When Mai Wang read the May 28 edition of Science, in particular the paragraph pertaining to Vanderbilt in the article “Is the U.S. Brain Gain Faltering?” — she was shocked.

An international student having recently earned her graduate degree from Vanderbilt, she couldn’t understand why the article portrayed Vanderbilt as a school that was unwelcoming to foreign students.

“I always thought Vanderbilt was a place that opened doors for international students. And as an international student, I have never felt separated here…I feel comfortable at this university,” she said.

But the excerpt from the article [see page 3] contradicted Wang’s experience.

Like Wang, Roger Chalkley, d.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training, was equally shocked when he saw the article. Though he had spoken with a reporter from Science a few months back, Chalkley said that what he read was grossly taken out of context.

“I spent hours on the phone with the reporter trying to educate him on graduate programs and how they are funded. The comments he picked out and pieced together not only misrepresented our University, but even inferred the exact opposite position of our graduate program,” he said. [See Chalkley’s letter to the editor on page 3].

But Wang and Chalkley weren’t the only ones upset by the letter. The international student community responded, setting up a chain of communication and garnering more than 200 signatures on an open letter to Chancellor Gordon Gee. The letter sought recognition for the contributions of international students and scholars, and pointed out that Chalkley’s comments seemed to underestimate these contributions.

“Our concern is that we want the reputation of the University, which has been put at stake (by this article), back to its dignity and honor. It’s not a question of foreign students or native students, it’s a question of Vanderbilt’s status as an inclusive, outreach, educational institution,” said Pramod Aryal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Health Services Research, and a native of Nepal.

“We are the children of Vanderbilt — we call ourselves Vandy people,” added Zheng Fu, a graduate student in Management of Technology, and the president of the Vanderbilt Chinese Students and Scholars Association. “We are worried about the future of Vanderbilt. And that’s not just to honor us, but to honor all of the people, all of the Vandy students.”

Vanderbilt leadership shared these concerns with the students, as well as a concern for the Vanderbilt students this article had upset.

“I want to apologize, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding this article, for the hurt it has caused you. It shouldn’t have happened,” said Harry R. Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs, addressing students at an open forum held Monday. “Vanderbilt has a strong commitment to fostering a large international presence, and the true Vanderbilt welcomes people from everywhere,” he said.

Steven G. Gabbe, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine, said he too regretted that this happened.

“I am sorry for the hurt and upset this may have caused any of you. Please know that the School of Medicine will continue to seek the most accomplished students and scholars throughout the world, and will do our best to build an academic environment that will help all of our faculty and students achieve at the highest level,” he said.

Chalkley also offered his apologies, and assured students he was seeking action from Science magazine. After submitting a letter to the editor of Science, which clarifies Vanderbilt’s dedication to international students, Chalkley called Jeffrey Mervis, the author of the Science article.

“He agreed, after looking back at the article, that what he wrote did not accurately portray our conversation,” Chalkley said. “He said he hadn’t intended to do this, but realized there was a problem. He asked what he could do about it, and I said that I would like my letter to run with an affirming note from him printed below it. I’m optimistic this will happen.”

Pharmacology graduate student Yi Feng said the open forum, which allowed students to ask Jacobson, Gabbe and Chalkley questions regarding the article and Vanderbilt’s commitment to international students, showed that the university took the students’ concerns to heart. But, she said, it is important to her, other students and faculty to see something written in Science that clarifies Vanderbilt’s image and reputation.

“I have had friends at other universities read this story and say ‘I’m sorry you are at a university that considers you a form of labor,’” Feng said. “It’s Science — one of the highest respected magazines in the whole scientific world. That’s probably why it got noticed. It’s especially harmful because this misquoting was in an article that was so optimistic and positive about international students.”

Fu is also hoping to see a clarification printed in an upcoming issue of the magazine.

“We may know that there’s some story behind it, but it’s too public, and all the people in the world will read it and see the image of our University as this,” Fu said. “We want it to be clear that this article is not how Vanderbilt really is. If Science distorted the facts, then we’d like to see Science run something that says that.”

Beyond the clarification in Science, the international students told Vanderbilt leadership to keep doing what they have been — listening to student needs, striving to make a better educational environment, building an international reputation, and continuing to attract the best minds from around the world.

“Keep responding to problems as they arise, keep seeking improvement — keep doing a good job,” Feng said.

Chalkley sends letter to ‘Science’ editor regarding recent article

To the Editor,

I was hurt and distressed by a recent article on brain drain in the May 28th edition of Science Magazine, as were many international students at Vanderbilt University and around the country. The assertions attributed to me in the article are taken out of context and simply incorrect.

Vanderbilt University Medical School has been successful in obtaining training grants from the NIH, a mark of an educational program that develops the best scholars and scientists. Such success comes with one significant restriction — the NIH limits these grants to U.S. citizens. The article seemed to indicate that I feel “domestic students are simply a better fit” with our programs. The only factor that makes them “a better fit” is that we have federal grants to support their scholarship.

The article seems to indicate that I believe international students are a source of “labor.” This is a misinterpretation of my remarks. I believe that other universities may recruit international graduate students to act as teaching assistants, not to be scholars. This is exploitative, and I was indicating that this does not happen at our medical school.

Finally, it is a fact that students with good English skills have a greater chance of success at Vanderbilt. However, we would not turn down a brilliant scientist because of limited English speaking skills. If we are to attract the best scholars from around the world, then it is our job to help them learn English and improve their chances to flourish academically.

I am committed, as is the entire University, to attracting the best scholars in the world, and we are proud that our community of scholars includes many international students. They are brilliant, talented and dedicated, and we deeply appreciate their contributions to our University, to science and to society. I am appalled that comments attributed to me have hurt and offended them. For that I am deeply sorry.


Roger G. Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean of Biomedical Research Education and Training

The following is the excerpt from Science:

Some university administrators say that domestic students are simply a better fit for their programs. Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, currently has 34 different research training grants from the National Institutes of Health, which require participants to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Vanderbilt takes pride in its relatively small population — 10 to 15 percent — of international students. “We don’t have too much trouble recruiting good students, so we haven’t needed foreign students as a source of labor,” says senior associate dean Roger Chalkley, who oversees graduate biomedical research education and training at the medical school. “We also much prefer them because their English skills are so much better than the Asian kids.” Still, the high bar doesn’t seem to deter applicants: Last year, for example, the school received 710 applications from foreign students and enrolled 14.

—Article by Jeffrey Mervis

Post 9/11 Homeland Security and Tennessee driver’s license restrictions add to international students’ concerns

by Lisa Peper

For many international students, the Science article and concerns about Vanderbilt’s attitude towards the international community seemed to be following a disturbing trend.

First was the advent of the Department of Homeland Security, which affected the entire country. Then was the state of Tennessee’s recent decision to prohibit some legal immigrants from obtaining a driver’s license.

“I think after 9/11, we don’t know how far it [heightened security] will go…and it may have a negative impact on the entire foreign community,” said Zheng Fu, a graduate student in Management of Technology and president of the Vanderbilt Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

When the new driver’s license law goes into effect in Tennessee on July 1, the state will be the first in the country to stop issuing standard driver’s licenses to some legal immigrants — including international students. Instead, the students will be issued driver’s certificates, which are stamped “not valid for ID.”

International students will be required to show their passport or immigration papers for identification — when buying a drink at a bar or applying for a store credit card.

Homeland Security has made it more difficult for international students to enter the United States, and can make traveling to their native land and back a nightmare. This, according to Fu, seemed more understandable, because of how “horrible” Sept. 11 was. But the issue of driver’s licenses is less understandable, he said.

“We have a mark,” Fu said. “And I feel quite disappointed about this state.”

For more information on the new driver’s license requirements, visit http://www.tennessee.gov/safety/listinfo.