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U Of I Reverses Course After Kicking Grad Student Out For Failing To Get Tested For COVID-19

Ivor Chen is a fourth-year graduate student in the physics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In late January, Chen was initially dismissed from the U of I for one year for failing to regularly test for COVID-19. The university modified that decision this week.

The University of Illinois has backed down from an initial decision to dismiss a graduate student for a full year for not getting regular COVID-19 tests during the fall semester. 

Late last month, Yidong “Ivor” Chen, a fourth year physics PhD student from China, faced a disciplinary committee made up of students, faculty and staff for testing non-compliance. Chen says he explained to the committee that he lives off-campus with his mother, who he says is high risk for complications from COVID-19. Chen says he works remotely. He says statements on the university website led him to believe that if he was living and working off-campus, that he didn’t need to test every week. (Chen also says he applied for and received a testing exemption for the spring semester.)

A representative for the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union that represents graduate workers, says it took the committee less than 10 minutes to come to their initial decision in Chen’s case: dismissal for a full year, 80 hours of community service, two reflective essays, and a no trespass order barring Chen from setting foot on campus while he’s dismissed. 

But that changed this week. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), a union which represents graduate workers, circulated a petition on Chen’s behalf calling on the university to reverse its decision in his case. As of Wednesday evening, more than 18,000 people have signed it. Chen also had the support of faculty members who urged the university to reverse their decision. 

On Tuesday, Chen says he received a notice that the university’s Senate Committee for Student Discipline had reconvened that day to evaluate new information in his case. The committee modified Chen’s disciplinary decision to “dismissal held in abeyance until graduation,” which is defined by the university as a sanction that allows the student to continue their enrollment so long as they don’t incur any further violations. Chen was also ordered to write two reflective essays and perform 25 hours of community service.

While he’s relieved that he can continue his studies, Chen says he believes the punishment is still too harsh.

“I’m not 100% satisfied. The attitude is kind of this is the best I can ask for. But at the same time, this is the least that they can do. But it’s also the least disruptive to my life right now. So, there’s no other choice,” Chen says. He says his punishment is particularly frustrating given that he does not go to parties, bars or see any of his friends. Chen says he takes the pandemic very seriously. 

A spokesperson for the U of I, Robin Kaler, wrote via email that the university cannot comment on a specific student’s case due to federal privacy laws. She added that COVID-19 safety protocols and the possible consequences for violating them “have been broadly, regularly and frequently communicated throughout the pandemic on virtually every platform available to us.”

Kaler wrote that department leaders are responsible for reinforcing the rules, and that the student disciplinary procedure “affords students due process, including the right to written notice of charges, the opportunity for a hearing with an advisor present, the right to present evidence and testimony and the right to appeal a disciplinary action.”  

Data provided to Illinois Newsroom by the U of I shows that 748 students have been disciplined for COVID-19 testing violations since the fall 2020 semester began. The vast majority of students — 607 — were issued “conduct probation,” which is defined as a “strong communication that a student is no longer in good disciplinary standing with the academic community” and could face suspension or dismissal if they fail to comply with sanctions or otherwise violate the rules while on probation. Only 27 of the 784 students formally sanctioned by the university were dismissed as a result of testing non-compliance. 

Chen says he doesn’t know why the disciplinary committee initially ruled in favor of his dismissal for one year. He appealed the decision, but Chen and the GEO say it was dismissed.

Between the beginning of the fall semester and Feb. 14, 87 of the 748 students sanctioned for testing noncompliance appealed their disciplinary sanctions. In the vast majority of appeals — 64 — the original decisions were upheld; in 18 cases, the decision was modified in the student’s favor; in one case the decision was overturned entirely — meaning the student was found not to be in violation; and four appeals are still pending, according to data provided by the U of I. 

Chen has a visa that allows him to legally reside in the country so long as he’s a student. He says his mother has been stranded in the U.S. since the pandemic began last year and has struggled to get a flight back to China. Had the U of I’s original decision been upheld, Chen and the GEO say he and his mother would have faced possible deportation.

“The disciplinary procedures are not written with international students in mind,” says Kai Shinbrough, a representative of the GEO. “And the whole system is designed for domestic students. And so, you know, the university just throws international students into these sets of rules, and they don’t really take into account how, you know, certain discipline can disproportionately affect international students in a way that it doesn’t affect domestic students.”

Chen says he hopes his case will incentivize the university to reconsider its disciplinary procedures related to COVID-19 violations. As the petition to have him reinstated gained momentum, Chen says he heard from other students who were also negatively impacted by the university’s disciplinary policies and procedures. 

He says the university’s COVID-19 disciplinary procedures should be tiered and nuanced, and he hopes the campus will add public health experts to disciplinary committees so that they can evaluate whether someone’s actions posed a threat to public health.

“They’re doing this one size fits all solution to deal with this COVID-19 pandemic. And I don’t think that’s the correct way to deal with a situation,” Chen says. 

Shinbrough says Chen was lucky; he had the support of a union, faculty members and a petition that garnered thousands of signatures. 

“A lot of things had to come together for the disciplinary action to be reduced. And it very easily could have just not happened. And I think that that’s a problem. And I think that that’s something that the university needs to take seriously,” Shinbrough says. 

The GEO is calling for an investigatory review of Chen’s disciplinary proceedings, and other possible cases of unfair student discipline. 

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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