In honor of the Department of Statistics' 50th Anniversary, we are highlighting our outstanding faculty and alumni of the past half-century.
The late Wen-chen Chen graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in statistics in 1978. That fall, he was hired by Professor and Chair Jay Kadane as an assistant professor in the Carnegie Mellon Department of Statistics.He became one of 12 department faculty. His interests were primarily statistical inference, sequential analysis, and statistical analysis of clinical trials. “We were good friends. He was a cheerful part of our small group,” Prof. Bill Eddy recalled.
Over the next two years, Wen-chen and his wife, Su-jen, became parents, welcoming son Eric. By 1981, his professional life was also blossoming. He and Jay were starting to do research in quality control, and Wen-chen planned an ambitious summer research program. Before undertaking the latter, he and his wife returned to Taiwan to visit their families and show off their new son. Then, tragedy struck.
After undergoing extensive questioning by Taiwanese authorities regarding his alleged political activities in the U.S., 31-year-old Wen-chen was found dead on July 3, 1981 on the grounds of National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei. The initial press reports quoted officials of the Taiwan Garrison General Headquarters as stating that Wen-chen probably committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor fire escape of the Research Library at NTU. The official reason for his alleged suicide was because of his anti-government activities and “because he feared being arrested for his crimes.”
As the late Prof. Morrie DeGroot wrote in a report detailing the darkest time in the department’s history, “These reports immediately generated strong reactions at CMU and elsewhere throughout the U.S. – reactions of doubt, disbelief, and suspicion. “The mysterious circumstances surrounding Dr. Chen’s death received worldwide coverage in the news media,” he wrote. A July 21 article in the New York Times stated: “Today in Taipei, the district prosecutor's office issued a report saying that there was 'no evidence suggesting murder has been found so far.' The report, according to Reuters, added that 'the death could be an accident or suicide'.” Wen-chen’s family said it was impossible that he would commit suicide. Carnegie Mellon President Richard Cyert was quoted as saying Wen-chen had plenty of reasons to want to live, with a one-year-old son and a promising academic career ahead of him.
Bill recalled calling Taiwan shortly after Wen-chen’s death so he and his wife, Connie, could speak with Su-Jen. “There was a weird buzzing at the time. Afterwards I realized it was the secret police monitoring the call,” he said. With Morrie as the driving force in bringing attention to what the Taiwanese government was dismissing, he and renowned Pittsburgh-based pathologist Cyril Wecht traveled to Taiwan two-and-a-half months later. The men conducted their own limited investigation through interviews with friends and associates of Wen-chen; meetings with some government officials; visiting the site where his body was discovered; and conducting a visual examination of the body. Morrie wrote, “We conclude that Dr. Chen was a victim of homicide, and that his death was caused by his being dropped from an upper floor of the fire escape while unconscious.” While his report’s recommendations included that a “vigorous investigation of Dr. Chen’s death be continued,” there was no immediate action.
Morrie proposed that the American Statistical Association (ASA) highlight the situation. In response, ASA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights decided to sponsor a session on Wen-chen’s work and death at the 1983 Annual Meetings. His brother, Robert Chen, served as the main speaker before more than 100 attendees. Over the years, Carnegie Mellon and NTU have held memorial services on the anniversary of Wen-chen’s death. In 2009, the case was reopened, with the Taipei prosecutor’s office concluding there was insufficient evidence to charge Garrison Command officials.
Today, Wen-chen is remembered by those who were here during his brief tenure in the Dept. of Statistics as a smart, cheerful, and likeable young man with a warm smile whose promising future was cut tragically short. What might have been, is a common refrain.