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A professor of marketing at the University of Missouri at Columbia told students he’d been relieved of his teaching duties after comments he made to a student from Wuhan, China, about the need for a face mask during an online class meeting were widely circulated on social media. The virus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, and the spread of the virus in the U.S. has brought with it a surge in anti-Asian racism.

The university confirmed that the marketing professor, Joel Poor, remained employed and “has been assigned to other duties.” Missouri referred the incident to its Office for Civil Rights and Title IX, which has opened an investigation.

Some students have called for Poor’s firing, while others have taken to his defense, saying his comments were meant jokingly and there was no malicious intent.

In a slightly more than one-minute video of the exchange posted on social media, Poor asks the unidentified student where he is from. When the student responds “Wuhan,” Poor replies “Wuhan?” He laughs and says, “Let me get my mask on.”

Poor quickly gathers himself, says “welcome” to the student and asks if he has had any problems with travel and if he was able to return home over the summer.

“If you need a place to stay, I have an extra bedroom and stuff if things get tough,” Poor tells the student before adding that he’d only been to the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Chongqing. “So I haven’t had the pleasure of going to Wuhan.”

A shorter version of the video was initially shared on Twitter by a student group focused on confronting racism at Missouri that goes by the hashtag #StillConcerned. The group criticized the comment as “racist and xenophobic” and called for Poor to be fired.

This Twitter user who identified as a student at Missouri echoed the firing call, suggesting Missouri has a long way to go to address racism on campus.

The university was rocked by high-profile student protests over campus racial climate issues in 2015 that led to the resignations of the University of Missouri system president and the chancellor of the campus in Columbia. University administrators have worked to address those issues and improve the institution's tarnished image over the years, but, like many other colleges across the country, it still struggled with racial tensions on campus. Those tensions were magnified at Missouri and elsewhere after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May sparked nationwide protests. Colleges, including Missouri, responded by pledging to fight racism on campus and address racial inequities in academic programming, faculty hiring and other areas.

Poor did not respond to requests for comment. On Monday evening, he sent a message to students in his Principles of Marketing class saying he’d been relieved of his teaching duties.

He sent a message earlier in the day apologizing for his comments.

“During today's 11 am class, I made a joke about needing to put on a mask after a student said he was from Wuhan,” Poor wrote to students in the class. “I made the joke in the context of where the virus started. This was put on Twitter without the context that I immediately followed up with ‘I've only been to Chongqing and Shanghai’ and then asking the student about potential problems traveling to/from the U.S./to China. To anyone who was offended by my comments, I sincerely apologize and I want to communicate unequivocally that I have nothing but respect and love for the Chinese people and especially my students from China. But the most important point you need to understand from a marketing perspective is that what I did was wrong and here is why.

“1. In marketing, perception is reality. It doesn't matter if I didn't intend to offend someone, the fact that I did is what counts. When someone tells us we did something wrong, we need to be humble, not defensive and learn from it,” he wrote. “2. I should have been more sensitive. Even though I am totally supportive of the Chinese people/students, the political context here in the U.S. is not. I should have realized that and refrained from commenting like I did.”

An alumnus, Morgan Keith, wrote on Twitter that Poor has made inappropriate comments in class before.

"Anyone who has taken a class with Joel Poor knows this is not the first time he’s said something sexist, racist and/or inappropriate," she posted.

Some students have rallied to Poor’s defense. Mark Moghadam, a junior at Missouri who said he has known Poor since his freshman year, started an online petition in support of Poor that had received more than 5,000 signatures as of Tuesday evening.

Moghadam said the comment was inappropriate and Poor’s apology was warranted. “But if you do watch the full video, maybe the denotation could have been offensive, but the connotation, the inflection in his voice, you can tell it’s lighthearted,” he said. He said the mask comment is “almost ironic because it’s over Zoom, not in person.”

Sarah Bauer, a sophomore in Poor's class, said she felt his apology was "very genuine" and she was surprised and disappointed when she received the message from Poor saying he'd been relieved of teaching duties.

"I think if they would have looked into it a little bit more, it would have been a different story," she said. "I think Mizzou’s just very sensitive right now, which is totally understandable."

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