A fourth-year international Ph.D. student who was dismissed from the University of Illinois for COVID non-compliance in the fall 2020 semester has been readmitted after public outcry.
Now, he has proposed solutions to create a more “transparent and humane” policy.
Yidong “Ivor” Chen did not leave his apartment except for essentials during the fall semester, staying there with his mother while working remotely for the university. McKinley Health Center exempted Chen from COVID testing for the Spring 2021 semester, but he was still punished for “testing non-compliance” in the previous semester.
A change.org petition started by the Graduate Employees’ Organization circulated on social media, calling for the university to readmit Chen and launch an investigatory review of “unjust treatment” that led to disciplinary actions. As of February 24, the petition blew past its initial goal of 25,000 signatures with nearly 30,000 people signing.
The petition, which outlines the timeline of events, said the Senate Committee for Student Discipline modified Chen’s disciplinary decision on February 16. The changes include a conduct probation status until graduation, two 1,000-word essays and 25 hours of community service.
“Ivor’s case likely became so public simply due to how egregious and unfair the University’s discipline was,” the Graduate Employees’ Organization grievance committee said. “Any reasonable person reviewing the facts in Ivor’s case comes to the same conclusion: he made an honest mistake, he didn’t think he was supposed to test, but he didn’t put anyone in danger and his actions did not warrant severe discipline.”
Chen’s prior punishment was immediate dismissal, two essays, a ban from university property, a petition for reentry after one year, 80 hours of community service and evidence of successful academic or work history during his first year of dismissal. Additionally, Chen and his mother were in the process of having their visas revoked due to the disciplinary action.
Chen accepted the changes to his discipline, and proposes three stages of reporting in a petition update:
a. On first report, send a written personal notice to remind the student of his or her alleged noncompliance, to inform the student of detailed COVID-19 policies, and to offer help if the student has special conditions preventing him or her from participating in COVID-19 testing program.Ivor Chen, change.org update proposal
b. On second report, the student should expect to have an informal meeting with the COVID-19 response team to discuss his or her alleged noncompliance. The student should be informed clearly of the consequence of further noncompliance.
c. Formal procedure of student disciplinary process will start on the third report.
Chen said sanctions should be given by medical or public health experts, not by the student disciplinary office, clear warning messages on Safer Illinois app should be provided and COVID-19 policies should similarly treat graduate students, faculty and staff regarding exemptions and enforcement.
A GEO representative said Chen’s proposal should be taken seriously by the university administration.
“…we agree wholeheartedly with the call for a nuanced, tiered, and proportionate disciplinary procedure that is educational in nature and prioritizes public health,” the GEO grievance committee wrote in an email. “The GEO had repeatedly asked the University administration for a seat at the table — on the COVID-19 executive steering committee, for example — so that we can advocate for policy that treats graduate employees fairly, and so that the University can avoid situations like the one Ivor faced. Every request we have made for a seat at one of the University COVID-19 committees had been denied.”
Chen published his proposal on Change.org and the r/UIUC subreddit, which spurred conversation among the comments. Some were critical of Chen’s situation, while others pointed out policy inconsistencies from their own experiences.
The University has not provided information on disciplinary actions taken against graduate employees, according to the GEO.
“The only channel the GEO has available for identifying cases of unfair student discipline is for graduate employees to reach out to us directly,” the committee said. “To date, we are aware of roughly 5 cases of ‘unfair’ student discipline related to COVID-19.”
Graduate students facing “unfair” or “disproportionate” discipline are encouraged to reach out to the GEO using its email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The GEO Grievance Committee provided a statement on its fight for rights for graduate employees:
“Since February 2020, the GEO has fought for the rights of graduate employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the summer of 2020, the GEO fought for the creation of the Summer Supplementary Block Grant Program, which provided our bargaining unit members with healthcare and a stipend during the summer months when the University usually expects graduate employees to go without. We also fought for, and won, the creation of the COVID-19 testing exemption process.Graduate Employees’ Organization Grievance Committee, Feb. 21
Initially, the University wanted all graduate students living in Champaign-Urbana, regardless of the risk to themselves and others, to participate in COVID-19 testing. (In some cases, similar to Ivor’s, a graduate employee may be sheltering in place, and
participating in the COVID-19 testing program–which may require taking a bus to a testing center, in addition to standing in an enclosed space with others that must remove their masks in order to test–becomes their largest source of COVID-19 exposure.) These are two examples among many that highlight the role of the GEO in advocating for the rights of graduate employees during this pandemic.
At each step, we have faced opposition from the University administration.”