PhD Student Dismissed From UIUC After Working Remotely to Protect His Mother

University of Illinois

A fourth-year doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) may face deportation after being dismissed from his studies due to noncompliance with COVID-19 testing.

Yidong Chen, who goes by the nickname Ivor, lived with his mother in Champaign-Urbana while working remotely as a teaching assistant in the fall semester of 2020.

Because his mother has greater chances than he does of contracting COVID-19, Chen barely left their home until the start of the spring semester of 2021.

Chen opted out of his university’s policy on COVID-19 testing, which changed multiple times throughout the past few months. 

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Yidong “Ivor” Chen. Image via Graduate Employees’ Organization

On Dec. 21, 2020, Chen received a disciplinary charge notice that accused him of noncompliance with COVID-19 testing. A hearing took place last month on Jan. 29.

During the hearing, Chen explained his reasons for his noncompliance. Given the university’s “unclear and evolving instructions,” he assumed that if he worked from home 100% of the time, he would not need to undergo COVID-19 testing. 

What happened next baffled Chen and the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), a labor union representing teaching assistants and graduate assistants at UIUC.

“In response, the members of the disciplinary panel strongly rebuked Ivor’s behavior, and began several irrelevant, demeaning, and unreasonable lines of questioning including whether or not Ivor received health insurance from the University, whether he receives a 401K, and how often he visits the grocery store,” the union said in a statement.

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After a few minutes of closed deliberation, the panel issued the following due to Chen’s noncompliance:

  1. Dismissal from the University for one year, effective immediately
  2. Two 1,000-word reflective essays
  3. A trespass notification that prohibits Ivor from setting foot on University property, subject to enforcement by the University Police Department
  4. A petition letter for University re-entry after one year
  5. 80 hours of community service
  6. Evidence of successful academic or work history during his one-year dismissal

The GEO addressed the punishment, noting that Chen received a testing exemption for the spring 2021 semester after he applied for it.

“In other words, the same situation that Ivor experienced in the Fall and Spring semesters resulted in two radically different outcomes: In the Fall semester, the disciplinary panel decided Ivor’s reasons not to test regularly were cause for dismissal, whereas in the Spring semester the McKinley Health Center decided Ivor’s reasons not to test warranted a COVID-19 testing exemption,” the union said.

As Chen’s visa is tied to his status as a graduate student, he is now in danger of being deported. The GEO has launched a petition and an email campaign calling on UIUC to reinstate him.

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“Not only is it a disproportionate response, those responses are not designed for international students, because for a domestic student, say the temporary expulsion, you can go home for three months and work,” said GEO leader Advith Govindarajan, according to WCIA. “But if you’re being deported during a pandemic, it just makes the situation so much more difficult and complicated.”

In a statement on Monday, Provost Andreas Cangellaris defended the panel’s decision and maintained that COVID-19 safety protocols are regularly communicated.

“The procedure affords students due process, including the right to a written notice of charges, the opportunity to have a hearing with an advisor present, the right to present evidence and testimony and the right to appeal a disciplinary action. Decisions to sanction students are not made lightly, nor without warning,” Cangellaris said, according to The News-Gazette. “Our COVID-19 safety protocols — as well as the way we go about the requirement for regular testing and possible consequences for violating the protocols — have been broadly, regularly and frequently communicated throughout the pandemic, on virtually every platform that is available to us.”

Feature Image via Graduate Employees’ Organization

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