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Hundreds of MSU professors, GEU call to remove VP of research Stephen Hsu

June 15, 2020
<p>Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Stephen Hsu is pictured during the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 27, 2017, at the Hannah Administration Building.</p>

Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Stephen Hsu is pictured during the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 27, 2017, at the Hannah Administration Building.

The Michigan State University Graduate Employees Union and its coalition partners in the STEM community are calling for MSU to remove Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Stephen Hsu in a Twitter thread denouncing scientific racism, sexism, eugenicist research and conflicts of interest.

As of 9:00 a.m. Monday, a general petition has about 370 signatures and a separate petition of Michigan State professors has about 300 signatures.

Hsu was hired to lead the university's research enterprise, administering faculty and student research across the university as the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies under ex-MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon in 2012.

Scientific racism and sexism

Scientific racism is the belief that pseudoscientific evidence can support or justify racism, racial inferiority or racial superiority. The GEU compared Hsu's views to white supremacist Stefan Molyneux, including clips from a podcast between Hsu and Molyneux to support these claims.

"A video from a 2017 podcast interview with Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Stephen Hsu has offended many people," MSU President Samuel L. Stanley said in a statement. "Regardless of his intent, the impact of his remarks was significant, insensitive and divisive. We are incredibly sorry to those who felt that impact."

Hsu responded to these accusations in a June 12 blog post, saying these clips were taken out of context and that Molyneux was, "not a controversial figure in 2017, although he has since become one."

"The attacks attempt to depict me as a racist and sexist, using short video clips out of context, and also by misrepresenting the content of some of my blog posts. A cursory inspection reveals bad faith in their presentation," he wrote. "The accusations are entirely false — I am neither racist or sexist. The Twitter mobs want to suppress scientific work that they find objectionable. What is really at stake: academic freedom, open discussion of important ideas, scientific inquiry. All are imperiled and all must be defended."

The GEU's thread linked to other blog posts from Hsu that support "cognitive differences" between races such as a 2008 post about intelligence based on race, and a 2016 post about brain morphology based on race.

In wake of the national unrest to anti-Black police brutality, Hsu posted a blog entry about a 2019 study by psychology professor Joseph Cesario, concluding, "contrary to activist claims and media reports, there is no widespread racial bias in police shootings."

Hsu has also expressed his support for GRE & SAT testing concluding that they measure cognitive ability and that lack of Black and Hispanic representation in higher education reflects lower ability.

Addressing the sexism in his studies, the GEU linked a series of 2017 posts discussing hiring differences based on sex at Google and former Google employee James Damore, who dropped a lawsuit last month alleging discriminatory practices against conservative white men as part of the company's efforts to increase diversity.

In one post, Hsu argued that women were not incapable, but fewer of them were qualified to hire in the general population.

Hsu said in a different post that, "Damore is pointing out that pro-diversity objectives may incentivize managers to discriminate by gender or race in hiring and promotion.

Hsu's views on genetics do not reflect the views of the broader scientific community, according to multiple meta-analyses on the topic.

Comments under Hsu's blog posts acknowledge that the research, while showing biological differences between the sexes, was ignoring the social factors at play.

People in support of Damore stated that there were biological reasons why there were less women opting for the positions, and those against Damore claimed it was unjust for them to only focus on biological differences when there was clear societal bias.

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Eugenics and conflicts of interest

The accusations tie back to Hsu's outspoken advocacy for eugenics or discouraging reproduction from those with genetic defects and disabilities with the intent of improving the quality of the human species.

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell case that forced the sterilization of female inmates did not violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because the court argued that imbecility, epilepsy, and feeblemindedness are hereditary, and the inmates should be prevented from passing these defects to their children, according to The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

This American eugenics movement helped facilitate the rise of the Nazism in the 1930's, according to The Guardian.

Nazis on trial after the war used the precedent of Buck v. Bell in their defense, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.

Supporters of the letters to remove him see Hsu as a modern eugenicist as he co-founded start-up business Genomic Prediction that aims to select embryos based on intelligence in 2007.

“Maybe the bottom 1% embryo will grow up to be a great person … even be a scientist, but the odds are against it,” Hsu said in an article by The Guardian referenced in the thread. “I honestly feel if we can calculate that score and find a real negative outlier there’s an ethical responsibility for us to report that.”

Additionally, he posted support of breeding “super-intelligent” humans, and embryo selection specifically to remove those with the possibility of developing an illness, disease or disability.

A 2019 paper on DNA trait predictions, "Genomic Prediction of 16 Complex Disease Risks Including Heart Attack, Diabetes, Breast and Prostate Cancer" had to be corrected to add Hsu's sharehold and position on board of directors for Genomic Prediction, Inc., a conflict of interest which he did not previously disclose.

Similarly, they added he did not disclose a conflict of interest in a paper on height predictions from DNA.

The administration's response

The GEU's thread, which can be read in full here, was met with support from members of the MSU community.

An open letter to the university urges Hsu's removal because he does not uphold the university mission or its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The faculty led letter was sent to Stanley on June 11, and an updated letter was sent Saturday. The letter details that Hsu's views ignore social science research and that it is disturbing for someone to have those views in a role with authoritative input to allocate funding.

Hsu wrote in his blog post, "Regarding my work as Vice President for Research, the numbers speak for themselves. MSU went from roughly $500 million in annual research expenditures to about $700 million during my tenure. We have often been ranked #1 in the Big Ten for research growth. I participated in the recruitment of numerous prominent female and minority professors, in fields like Precision Medicine, Genomics, Chemistry, and many others."

"Until this Twitter attack there has been not even a single allegation (over 8 years) of bias or discrimination on my part in promotion and tenure or faculty recruitment," he said. "These are two activities at the heart of the modern research university, involving hundreds of individuals each year. Academics and Scientists must not submit to mob rule."

Supporters of his removal continue to express that this is not an issue of academic freedom, rather, that MSU's promotion of diversity and inclusion is inconsistent with allowing power to be held by someone who does not believe in it.

Stanley added the importance of the mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training that will be implemented this fall following these claims and other incidents.

"The core mission of higher education is the advancement of knowledge, people and society including, at times, research on controversial topics," Stanley wrote. "This incident, and the many bias incidents that have negatively impacted our community, reinforce the need for all MSU faculty, staff and students to participate in education and professional development on diversity, equity and inclusion."

Michigan State also has an ongoing search for a new Chief Diversity Officer position within the administration.

The GEU finalized the thread with this statement:

"The GEU recognizes that academic freedom entitles a scholar to express ideas without professional disadvantage. However, the VP of Research and Graduate Studies has tremendous power in determining research budgets and therefore tremendous responsibility in doing so in agreement with University values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hsu has been clear in his belief in innate group IQ differences & that systemic racism & sexism are not issues. He has demonstrated a lack of ethics by failing to disclose conflicts of interest & using his position as VP of Research to fund research that furthers systemic racism.

"Hsu’s belief that the lack of representation of Black and Hispanic students at universities is due to lower group ability will affect the ways the graduate school and MSU as a whole work to increase representation at the student and faculty level. Hsu's views minimize the true causes of the lack of Black students in higher education and instead lay the fault at group genetic differences. Given these views we believe it is not possible for Hsu to uphold university values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. When held by someone in charge of directing research funds and direction of graduate study, these racist beliefs deeply affect to the MSU community. MSU’s credibility as a research institution is at risk if Hsu continues to influence research funding. For these reasons, we demand that @michiganstateu #FireStephenHsu."

Hsu's prior experience in academic administration was serving as director of the University of Oregon’s Institute for Theoretical Science, where he had been critiqued for his views.

Prior to MSU, his research and primary work had been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds and particle physics. He also co-founded Silicon Valley companies SafeWeb and Robot Genius Inc.

The MSU Graduate Employees Union, or GEU, began this thread of Hsu's blog posts and statements in lieu of June 10's #ShutDownAcademia #ShutDownSTEM, created by Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to shed light on how systemic racism has affected Black academic and STEM professionals and for non-Black allies to commit to eliminating anti-Black racism in these fields.


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