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Professor Who Called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ on Leave

September 22, 2020
 
 

The University of Cincinnati is reportedly investigating an instructor who referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” a term that has been deemed xenophobic, unscientific and politicized, and which has been employed by President Trump. According to WKRC and screenshots of an email shared on social media, John Ucker, adjunct instructor of mechanical and materials engineering, responded to a student who had to miss an in-person lab due to a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine like this: “For students testing positive for the chinese virus [sic], I will give no grade.”

President Neville Pinto of Cincinnati later said on Twitter, “There is no place for bigotry in our community or any other. We are better than this. Every Bearcat deserves to feel welcomed, respected and supported. Greatness starts with inclusion. And inclusion starts with each of us.”

John Weidner, Ucker’s dean, referred the incident to the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Access for review and confirmed that Ucker was on administrative leave. "These types of xenophobic comments and stigmatizations around location or ethnicity are more than troubling," Weidner wrote in an email to CNN. "We know we can better protect and care for all when we speak about COVID-19 with both accuracy and empathy -- something we should all strive for."

Ucker did not respond to a request for comment.

Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech program, said in a statement that the "use of the phrase reflects poor judgement and the university should speak out to affirm its commitment to rejecting racism, bigotry and hate." Yet, as a "matter of free speech and academic freedom, a disciplinary response to a single statement, in the absence of evidence of a broader pattern of biased or harassing conduct, risks constricting the space for open discussion on contentious issues."

Going forward, Cincinnati "can and should continue to speak out on this issue, raise awareness and unequivocally condemn what the professor said," Friedman added. "And they can and should pursue an effort at dialogue with the professor, in the hope that he can hear out just how deeply and negatively this phrase may affect students and the wider community. But efforts at dialogue and community support will be more sensible, effective and justifiable than a punitive response."

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