Petitions from the Graduate Employees Union, or GEU, Michigan State professors, and members of the MSU community have called for the removal of Stephen Hsu as vice president for research and innovation, denouncing him of scientific racism, sexism, eugenicist research and conflicts of interest.
Dueling petitions: Calls growing both for removal and support of VP of research Stephen Hsu
A counter petition in support of keeping Hsu has also begun circulating. As of 11:00 p.m. Wednesday it has about 970 signatures, from faculty from various universities across the world. The letter to Stanley says that the accusations calling Hsu a racist and sexist are rumors and lies, and they believe he should not be removed.
There are 460 signatures in the open letter petitioning Hsu's removal that reference current affiliation with MSU, including students and faculty, about 66% of responses.
In the open letter urging that Hsu remains at his post, about 90 signatures reference any affiliation with MSU, including students, faculty or explicit reference to alumni status, about 9% of responses.
Hsu stated in his June 12 response post that a signature from Corey Washington, the research office's director of analytics and his podcast co-host, was forged.
The general petition says that due to the nature of the open letter, submissions cannot be completely verified and those whose names were falsely submitted or have an error should submit an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The petition supporting Hsu has the same issue, those who find errors should email psychology professor Joseph Cesario at email@example.com, Eli Broad College of Business professor John Jiang at firstname.lastname@example.org, College of Engineering professor Wei Liao at email@example.com, or Corey Washington himself at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“In other words we have no way of verifying how many of these signatures are legitimate — this in itself is a serious problem considering the magnitude of accusations and suggestion that Dr. Hsu be even stripped of his tenure and professorship,” Washington said in a letter in support of Hsu.
The GEU did not call to strip Hsu's tenure or professorship in the physics department, rather to remove him from a leadership post that determines who gets research funding, said MSU GEU President Kevin Bird.
As a vice president, Hsu is an at-will employee meaning he can be removed from his vice president position without notice or reason, but his tenure position will remain and would have to go through a longer dismissal process, MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant said.
MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said on Monday that he is aware of these petitions that were sent to him over the weekend.
“I am very aware of this issue and the petitions. I am concerned about this and fully reviewing this matter,” Stanley said.
The petition in support of Hsu host letters from Cesario, Jiang, Liao, Washington and professors from University of Minnesota, and Utah Valley University defending him from the accusations.
"There is no question that the push for racial justice and equal rights has been and continues to be a noble and important cause," according to the petition in defense of Hsu. "In the narrow case, removing Hsu from his position will in no way advance this cause. In the general case, removing Hsu will do permanent damage to the university and will undermine the core values that we must uphold."
Talks of a lawsuit
In a June 12 blog post responding to the Twitter thread by the GEU, Hsu added a note to his initial response to the Twitter allegations, seeking help and funds to form a legal team to sue those speaking out against him online for slander or libel. The note has since been deleted.
James Madison College Professor and scientific racism historian John Jackson, who has written a series of blog posts about Hsu, suggests suing his critics is an indication Hsu is unfit for his position.
"For a brief time, Hsu had a this note up on his website indicating he would sue his critics," Jackson said in a blog post. "This is a sure indication that he is unfit for his office and that the talk about 'free inquiry' is merely posturing for his poor behavior. I wonder if Hsu knows that the discovery process during such a trial applies to him as well as his critics."
Editor's note: The original blog post from Jackson used the phrase "had a this note" instead of "had this note."
The MSU-Maryland study on police bias
The GEU's thread addressed Hsu's promotion of Cesario's 2019 study on racial disparities in fatal police shootings in partnership with University of Maryland. The study concluded that there is no disparity in rates of police shootings by race once crime rates are controlled by group.
In his letter, Washington clarified he was the one who asked Cesario to be on their podcast, Manifold, to discuss this study. In timeliness with the current national unrest, he felt these findings would be interesting. He also added that despite Cesario's conclusions, he also acknowledged other studies that do show disparities in police stops, and in all other uses of force, controlling for confounding factors.
Washington said before the podcast he read Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt's book, "Biased," which argues that implicit bias is largely responsible for disparities in how police treat minority suspects.
A 2020 study from University of Pittsburgh statistics professor Lucas Mentch found for most races, "the number of shooting victims observed was not at all reasonable to expect based on local population demographics,"
However, the findings are expected when victims are considered a random sample of arrest rates, rather than crime rates.
"Stated differently, these findings would support the notion that whatever biases may exist on the arrest level also carry through to the level of fatal shootings," according to the study.
One issue with the database is that it does not gather other forms of fatal police encounters or data on police shootings where the victim survived, according to the Pittsburgh study.
Additionally, race categories are different across databases, complicating the research further.
Cesario and Mentch, along with many other researchers, are calling for a public national data collection of police shootings.
Hsu was also criticized for his relationship with Holocaust denier Ron Unz, who was also on the podcast. Washington said he was unaware Unz 'flirted' with Holocaust denial and these views were not discussed on the show. He also said there is always risk when interviewing controversial people in order to learn from a conversation with the person.
Jackson addressed this in a blog post, as he has already written about Hsu's relationship with Unz before.
"Hsu hosted his friend Ron Unz, a Holocaust denier, on his podcast," Jackson said. "Corey Washington’s letter in support of Hsu claims 'Unz has flirted with Holocaust denial' which is completely false; he has not 'flirted' with it, he actively promotes it at unz.com and Hsu actively promoted unz.com."
Washington has been a friend of Hsu for 30 years, and said Hsu is not a Holocaust denier or anti-Semite and did not invite Unz to advance these views. However, Jackson wrote that no one ever said he was.
"My point is that Holocaust deniers are well known to leverage any opportunity to appear respectable," Jackson said in his post. "Hsu’s actions, regardless of what he thought he was doing did exactly that. By his own admission, Hsu has been friends with Unz for years and they worked on a campaign together at Harvard. As I said before, Hsu either knew of Unz’s antisemetic views and decided that Unz must be heard anyway or Hsu did not know which means Hsu didn’t bother checking what unz.com, the site he was promoting on his podcast, actually was. Either option shows Hsu to be incompetent to judge 'research integrity.'"
Editor's note: The original blog post from Jackson spelled "anti-Semitic" as "antisemetic."
He also addressed that Hsu chose to defend the decision rather than apologize.
"First, of course, I certainly have not charged Hsu with sharing those ideas but rather lending his name, and Michigan State University’s credibility, to those political activists," Jackson said. "Indeed, it is probably advantageous for white nationalists to appear with people who do not share their views."
In sum, Hsu's support letters outline that no concrete claims have been made to support his failing to do his job in a fair and unbiased manner, and that the university should refrain from firing him. Additionally, those who support him say there is no evidence of him being racist, sexist, or a eugenicist. "Therefore, the pressure to remove him is really about removing people who hold different viewpoints about controversial topics," Liao said in an email.
Jackson said in his June 16 blog post that the letters misunderstand the nature of free inquiry and academic freedom, and removing Hsu would not be a violation of academic freedom but a fulfillment of it.
Washington said in his letter that "free inquiry requires that investigators be free to research whatever they like. I might not be very interested in what you are studying, and I might not like the questions you are asking or the data or answers you are coming up with, but you need to be free to study them regardless of my opinion or my ideology."
Jackson addressed this position as well.
"Hsu’s supporters and Hsu himself throw around the phrase 'free inquiry' quite a bit," he said. "The letter they addressed to President Stanley claims 'More important, however, is that the core values of educational institutions and of scientific discovery are the principles of free inquiry and free expression.' 'Responsibility,' you will note, is not mentioned, but it is the core concept of academic freedom. Our responsibility, as academics, is to sit in judgment of what counts as knowledge."
Hsu told Washington that one thing he agreed with from the GEU's thread was that while all professors have the right to free speech, it is different with the vice president of research and innovation.
"VP of research is a political position and as such may be subject to greater constraints on free expression because one’s comportment can be criticized if it reflects badly on the university," Washington said in his letter. "I agree only to a certain extent. I believe that the visibility of the position sets it up as an example of what is involved in living up to the values that the university espouses, including those of free expression and free inquiry, and the ability not to judge a person’s fitness for a position based on their personal or political views."
Hsu's role in this administrative position is where Jackson and others' concerns stem from.
"My concern is that Hsu’s behavior has demonstrated he cannot fulfill the duties of his office," Jackson said in his blog. "His office requires him to ensure 'research integrity' which means, at a minimum he should be the best possible example of those practices. His responsibility is to make sure that his behavior reflects the responsibilities of his office. He has manifestly failed to do so. ... That is what the case is about. It is about whether Michigan State University believes that he is the best person to reflect our values as a research university. We should oppose his continuation in his present position because we value scholarship and scientific inquiry."
Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:20 p.m. June 18 to include updated links to Hsu's support letter and petition.