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Suspicion still surrounds death of CMU professor Chen Wen-Chen in 1981

Friday, November 09, 2001

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Twenty years have passed since Chen Wen-Chen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died mysteriously in his native Taiwan, a day after facing 13 hours of interrogation by secret police.

His family and colleagues never have accepted the Taiwanese government's initial assertion that he committed suicide or died accidentally in a fall. In the years since, they have worked to keep his memory alive.

So today, on the campus where he once taught statistics, they will gather at 4:30 p.m. for a tribute to a colleague whose death made headlines on two continents a generation ago and became a rallying cry for those opposed to human rights abuses.

The gathering in the University Center's Connan Room is sponsored by the Taiwanese Activism Organization of Carnegie Mellon and the Chen Wen-Chen Memorial Foundation.

Among those attending will be his son, Eric, who was 1 when his father died.

Chen's supporters insisted it was his opposition to the ruling Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, that cost him his life. On the previous day, he had been questioned extensively by officers with the Taiwan Garrison Command.

"The human aspect of this is what's most troubling," said Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, who did an autopsy in 1981 at Carnegie Mellon's request and remains certain the professor was murdered.

"This young father, this young professor had just gotten a promotion. He had a bright future."

Chen, 31 at the time, made the trip to his homeland with his wife Su-jen and their son. Authorities in Taipei said they found Chen's body July 3, 1981, on the campus of National Taiwan University.

Taiwanese officials said he had taken his own life or died after a fall from a campus building. But Wecht concluded that Chen died after being dropped from the upper floor of a campus building, something that the professor's wife said she knew from the start.

"It was murder," she said at the time.

"From the minute I saw his body in the funeral parlor, to which it had been taken by the police for custody, I knew that it was not an accident," she said. "There were just too many unexplained external wounds."

The late Richard Cyert, then president of Carnegie Mellon, chastised the government's handling of the case. "We do not believe that the murderers could not be found. We believe the government does not want to find them," he wrote to President Chiang Chin-Kuo a year after Chen's death.

Wecht said he took comfort in knowing the government eventually backed away from its contention that suicide was a possibility. Wecht doubts that Chen's family will learn what really happened, but said he believed it was no mystery within the government ruling Taiwan at the time.

"I think they know what happened," he said.

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