University of Florida Professor Resigns Amid Investigations Into Student’s Suicide

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Li was accused of behaving abusively while supervising the academic work of Huixiang Chen, 30, who died by suicide in June 2019. (Photo courtesy of University of Florida)

A tenured computer engineering professor at the University of Florida is resigning amid a lengthy investigation into his graduate student’s suicide.

Tao Li, 48, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 2004, submitted a resignation letter April 10, according to his personnel file obtained this week under Florida’s public records law. His last day at the university was expected to be May 15.

There was no public announcement of his decision. In his four-sentence resignation letter, Li did not offer any reason for his abrupt departure and did not mention the death of his graduate student, Huixiang Chen, or the university’s investigations into his actions. He wished the College of Engineering and the department where he worked “all the best.”

Li was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 15 as part of the university’s investigation into allegations by Chen that Li had encouraged him to commit academic misconduct and treated him abusively as a graduate student.

Li did not immediately respond to a phone call, two emails and two text messages asking to discuss his resignation. In December, Li asked this reporter, who was following the status of the investigations, to stop contacting him: “Please do not send more emails or call my or my family member’s cell phones,” he wrote in an email. 

The university previously told Li he was not allowed to have any contact or communications with any faculty, students or staff without permission. That would preclude Li even from protesting his innocence in interviews with news organizations that have most closely been following his case, including WUFT, because they are operated by faculty, staff and student journalists.

Li’s resignation comes amid the university’s probes into the death of Chen, 30, Li’s graduate student who died by suicide in June 2019.

One investigation into Li’s treatment of his students concluded that he did not engage in abusive conduct; the other found that Li had destroyed documents and improperly used non-UF communication methods, university spokesperson Hessy Fernandez said. She declined to comment on the pending probe. 

“The recent results of multiple investigations related to Dr. Li raised significant concerns,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “Before the University could fully evaluate these concerns, Dr. Li chose to resign.”

School records show Li was paid $153,238 per year, but a financial affidavit he filed in court last week in his pending divorce indicates he was paid $204,308 by the university. Fernandez declined to comment on the discrepancy. Li’s wife, Lan Luo, filed for divorce March 19, saying their marriage was “irretrievably broken.” Attempts to reach Luo were unsuccessful. 

Among Chen’s complaints to friends – as memorialized in messages to them made public after his death – was that Li asked Chen for trips to airports and that he was responsible for driving Li’s wife and father-in-law places. 

The university opened an initial investigation into Chen’s death in July 2019, a month after his suicide in his on-campus lab. Chen left behind notes accusing Li of coercing him to submit faulty data in a research paper under both their names to present at a prominent academic conference. 

A separate investigation by two prominent academic organizations determined there had been academic misconduct in a research paper submitted at their 2019 conference. 

The public findings of that investigation did not identify Li or Chen by name, although one of the groups retracted their co-authored paper, concluding that at least one of the authors knew it contained erroneous or false results.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had Li’s age as 49, which he had listed in a legal document filed earlier this month. However, he had earlier listed in his UF personnel file a date of birth that puts him at 48 years old, not 49.

About Alex DeLuca

Alex is a reporter for Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and can be reached at adeluca@freshtakeflorida.com.

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