The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



ND postdoctoral fellow removed from program after posting racist comments

, and | Friday, March 27, 2020

After making racist posts on Facebook directed at and blaming Chinese students for the spread of COVID-19, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Notre Dame has been terminated from her program, Dennis Brown, assistant vice president for news and media relations, said in an email Friday.

Kathryn Ralph, who was in the University’s five-plus-one doctoral fellowship program, posted a series of statements attacking Chinese students on her Facebook page Wednesday night, telling them they are “1000000% to blame” for the pandemic. Additionally, Ralph commented on the Facebook post of a fourth-year Ph.D. student, Chang Che, ordering her to “go home” and to “ask [her] country representatives why they hid this disease.”

Courtesy of Chang Che


Ralph did not respond to The Observer’s interview request and subsequently deleted her Facebook and LinkedIn profile sometime Thursday evening.

The Observer obtained screenshots of Ralph’s posts prior to their deletion.

“I was shocked and angry,” Che said when she saw the posts.

Che, also a student in the psychology department, said it was hard to believe a classmate would attack her on social media.

“It makes me feel unsafe [to be] even on campus,” she said. “I feel threatened to get out of Notre Dame and get out of the U.S.. … I’m also scared to be physically attacked.”

Che said she became increasingly worried after President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” but didn’t think it would affect her personally. 

While Che decided not to respond to Ralph, Zhiyu Liu, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the department of engineering, replied to Ralph.

“As a Chinese student studying in the U.S., I didn’t do anything wrong,” Liu said in a Facebook comment. “Millions of Chinese/Asians didn’t do anything wrong. Your comments are racist and only causing more harm in the difficult time.”

Sherrie Shaw, Liu’s mother-in-law, said she was upset when she saw Ralph’s posts.

“We should stand up to say, ‘That’s not what we think; that’s not what Americans are; that’s not the value of America,’” Shaw said.

Shaw posted screenshots of Ralph’s posts and comments, as well as her job profile, on Facebook on Thursday morning.

“[Ralph] needs to be held accountable for threatening college students who have no place to go. Please share this on your Facebook pages,” she said in the post.

Mengyu Gao, an alum of the department, shared Shaw’s post, and Ralph responded by commenting on Gao’s post, saying, “If you feel oppressed here, don’t stay here.”

By Thursday afternoon, Shaw’s post was shared more than 3,200 times.

Che said she emailed a number of faculty members in the department of psychology to ask if action could be taken against Ralph, and many responded to her expressing sympathy and assuring her action would be taken by the University.

“I feel warm and supported because of my professors,” Che said. “I appreciate the support and caring during this hard time.”

In response to Ralph’s comments, members of the Chinese community at Notre Dame and other supporters wrote a letter to University President Fr. John Jenkins urging the University to investigate the incident.

Courtesy of Chang Che

“We believe that Ms. Ralph’s behavior contributes to such growing xenophobia and hate incidents against the Asian community in this country,” the letter said. “As a leading institution, Notre Dame is in a much better position to respond to incidents such as this one — we hereby urge the University to take immediate actions against the actions of Ms. Ralph. No one should be living in fear because of their ethnicity and nationality, and especially not on the Notre Dame campus.”

More than 500 people signed the letter, which was sent to Jenkins on Friday morning. 

A couple of hours later, Jenkins replied in an email obtained by The Observer.

Courtesy of Chang Che

“Such abusive behavior is deeply at odds with the values we uphold here at Notre Dame,” he said in the email. “The University acted swiftly when it learned of the post, and the person who posted it is no longer affiliated with Notre Dame. We in the administration will take the steps necessary to support you at this challenging time for everyone.”

Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, said in an email the posts were particularly despicable because they use the tragedy of the pandemic to target an ethnic group.

“They clearly violate Notre Dame’s underlying principle that affirms the transcendent dignity and worth of every person, from conception to natural death, regardless of race, nationality or ethnic group, religious tradition, gender, socioeconomic class, immigration status, sexual orientation or anything else,” Browne said.

Ralph was also employed by Heterodox Academy, a non-profit education group advocating for “viewpoint diversity.” 

Shaw reached out to the Academy to discuss Ralph’s posts.

Members of the Academy replied to Shaw on Friday morning and said their relationship with Ralph was terminated as well. 

“As an organization that champions responsible discourse and constructive disagreement, we promptly reviewed the posts and determined they clearly fail to exhibit the constructive, respectful engagement we expect of our employees and our members. The statements also violate our standards of conduct,” a Heterodox representative said in an email. “Our working relationship with the individual involved has been terminated.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kathryn Ralph as a sixth-year Ph.D. seeking student at Notre Dame rather than a postdoctoral fellow. The Observer regrets this error.

Tags: , , ,

About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and was the Managing Editor of The Observer for the 2020-2021 school year. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

Contact Mariah

About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a member of the class of 2021 majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and is a former ND News Editor for The Observer.

Contact Serena

About Zixu Wang

Contact Zixu