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Valued researcher or prof non grata?

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents this month filed suit against the federal government and some of its bigwigs, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in an effort to bring a Chinese researcher to campus.

Meanwhile, a dean says the university no longer has use for him.

The regents said in a federal court filing that Dr. Hongwei Gao was supposed to start a postdoctoral fellowship in the electrical and computer engineering department at UNM in August, but he hasn’t been able to travel to America because the U.S. Department of State hasn’t processed his visa application.

The complaint says the university “is suffering prejudice every day without the contributions he would be making in research and investigation.”

The complaint, however, doesn’t track with what the dean in Gao’s field of study said about the matter: that the university has no work for Gao to do on campus because the professor with whom Gao would have worked has left the university.

“The person who sponsored him … he moved. He’s no longer with UNM. So this whole case is no case,” Christos Christodoulou, dean of the department of electrical and computer engineering, said in an interview. “This is not our job. There is nobody at UNM who is going to support him, because he was invited by another professor who left.”

UNM officials didn’t say why they are soldiering on with Gao’s case.

The “complaint for a writ of mandamus and declaratory judgment” filed earlier this month has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James Browning, and a hearing is scheduled for mid-December.

Albuquerque attorney Olsi Vrapi, an adjunct professor at UNM’s law school, is representing regents in the matter. He didn’t return a call for comment this week.

“My attorney has expertise, and we typically don’t talk to media,” said UNM chief legal counsel Loretta Martinez. “Hopefully you get the information you need.”

Gao earned a doctorate from the Center for Electromagnetic Simulation of Information and Electronics at the Beijing Institute of Technology in 2017, and he was a visiting scholar in UNM’s department of electrical and computer engineering from 2015 through 2017, according to court documents.

He was supposed to start a postdoctoral fellowship at UNM on Aug. 1. In March, UNM filed a petition on Gao’s behalf, which was approved by the Department of Homeland Security and valid from Aug. 1, 2019, until July 31, 2022, according to UNM’s complaint.

Christodoulou said Gao worked with Zhen Peng, a former assistant professor at UNM, but Peng left UNM earlier this year and is currently an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Peng – whose research interests are in the area of theoretical, computational and applied electromagnetics, according to his website – couldn’t be reached for comment.

The university’s complaint against the federal government says Gao in May was interviewed at the U.S. Consulate in Beijing and his application was placed in “administrative processing.” It has remained in that status for months without explanation.

“Due to privacy concerns we do not comment on individual visa cases,” a State Department official said in an email.

UNM is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment holding that the defendants’ unreasonable delay in adjudicating the visa application and any related background checks is unlawful.

“UNM has suffered prejudice from the delay because the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is without a Post-Doctoral Fellow and is uncertain when or if Dr. Gao will arrive to fulfill these duties,” the complaint states. “Dr. Gao is qualified in a highly specialized field and UNM is suffering prejudice every day without the contributions he would be making in research and investigation.”

Christodoulou, on the other hand, said the university isn’t being harmed.

“His lack of a presence here isn’t harming anyone. Not at all,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t need him for my work.”

Gao couldn’t be reached for comment.

This is the second time this year that UNM has taken legal action after someone’s immigration visa lingered in “administrative processing” for months.

Dr. Hamman Yahya, an assistant professor in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department, missed about two months of work waiting in Amman, Jordan, for the State Department to approve his return visa.

He returned to work shortly after UNM filed a complaint on his behalf. UNM Health Sciences officials refused to comment on Yahya’s case other than to say he eventually returned to work.

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