University of Illinois COVID discipline policies under fire after another “unfair” dismissal of graduate student

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Antonio Ruiz gave an emotional statement and proposed changes to discipline procedures during the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) press conference in late April.

After University of Illinois student Ivor Chen’s dismissal case was reversed last month, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) and professors from the Department of Physics requested that the University to perform an investigative review of what they call “unclear and unfair” COVID-19 disciplinary procedures. 

But the University has not reviewed its procedures so far, and if there is a review, it will be in the fall.

Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Robin Kaler said the University’s discipline procedures are administered by the Senate Committee on Student Discipline. 

“This committee regularly reviews the procedures and adapts them as it deems necessary,” Kaler said. “The community may make suggestions to the committee for changes through public comment at its meetings.”

However, the last meeting of the Senate Committee on Student Discipline of the semester was on May 3, meaning public comment will not open back up until September, nearly four months after another student was told to leave University Housing because of a COVID-19 testing violation. 

In addition, GEO member Kai Shinbrough said at a GEO press conference last month, “They [the University] generally don’t seek input from us or any of the other [university’s] stakeholders.”

And while the GEO and some professors were pushing the University for the changes in disciplinary and testing procedures, a graduate student in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Antonio Ruiz, was dismissed from the University for not complying with the COVID-19 testing policy. 

Over 1,000 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students were punished for testing noncompliance. Three-quarters of them were put on conduct probation.

The university released data showing 1,123 students were found to be “testing noncompliant” since the beginning of the fall semester, and 75% received the punishment of conduct probation. The university information said 659 other students were found to be not in violation or had their charges dropped.

Daniel Gealow, an undergraduate student, said at the committee’s April 12 meeting:

“My main concern is the harshness or perceived harshness of the disciplinary protocols for COVID violations. It’s not clear to me as a student, from current communication from the university, that hosting a non-socially distanced event would have any more or less punishments than missing your testing for a month.”

He added, “I think having a convenient, publicized list would help create a perception among students that the rules are the same for everyone.”

Ruiz’s story became the second case brought to community attention through a petition on The GEO created this petition in hopes to pressure the University to change its decision to dismiss Ruiz, which was successful earlier in the year with Chen’s case. 

In a petition update, the GEO states Ruiz “has exhausted all of his official mechanisms for appeal.” Ruiz was very emotional during the GEO press conference on April 23.

“I keep taking actions so that I always have some reason to hope that there will be a significant change,” he said. 

Ruiz created a GoFundMe fundraising page to cover his loss of income due to the case decision. He has been fired from his teaching assistant position, although he continued to grade homework thinking that he would be paid, as “none of his direct supervisors” were informed about it. Moreover, Ruiz will be evicted from his University Housing after May 13. People have already donated about $2,400 to Ruiz on his page as of May 13. 

No changes in disciplinary procedures — but policies changed pre-pandemic

After Ivor Chen’s case, the University revised its COVID-19 testing requirements for graduate students on March 10. The graduate students “are no longer required to test” if they do not come to campus.  Those rules now mirror those for university employees.

However, the University did not review and amend its disciplinary procedures. 

Several professors and the GEO wanted the University administration to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding Chen’s dismissal and his student discipline. 

“These requests were made in a sort of explicit formal setting in which the union was negotiating with the University as part of the COVID-19 impact bargaining team,” said a GEO representative. “What I find notable about this — when these requests were made formally — there was no movement at all on the part of the university’s representatives.”

The University declined to answer questions about Chen’s and Ruiz’s cases because federal privacy law generally prevents the university from discussing a specific student’s disciplinary case.

The student discipline Senate committee for the 2020-2021 academic year is made up of nine professors, six students and two student conflict office employees according to a committee report. The committee includes a designee from the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and a professor who serves as the chair of the committee. 

On April 13, 2020, shortly after COVID-19 entered the community, the committee presented a “proposal to modify the definition of Conduct Probation,” so dismissal is the only punishment for further violation.

The policy change meant the student discipline committee was granted the power to dismiss students for violating conduct probation, which is the most common sanction for COVID-related offenses, whether the student knew they were out of compliance or not. Before the change, students would only receive a formal sanction held in abeyance, which could include a reprimand, censure, or other punishments. 

Conduct probation made up the majority of testing noncompliance sanctions in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Prior to this change, the student conflict decision procedures stated that disciplinary subcommittees have the authority to decide cases where, if true, “…would likely result in the respondent’s suspension or dismissal from the University.”

The changes “further granted [the Office of Student Conflict Resolution] the power to impose dismissal for a student placed on Dismissal Held in Abeyance status by a committee but does not comply with educational sanctions,” the 2019-2020 annual report of the Senate Committee on Student Discipline said. “…students should expect to be suspended or dismissed if they fail to complete assigned educational sanctions or if they violate university policy while under the status.” 

Kaler said students “are well informed of their rights, responsibilities and options throughout the process,” and they have “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,” during the disciplinary process. 

Ruiz’s appeal hearing was deliberated by the panel for only 15 minutes according to the GEO, and the GEO alleges the panel showed “disinterest” in his supporting documentation and numerous letters of support from faculty, staff and medical workers. The GEO also claims the panel failed to accurately summarize the contents of the letter and its signatories. 

Part of the GEO’s demands include the reinstatement of all who were dismissed under conduct probation for testing noncompliance, replacing the sanction with a reprimand and restructuring the panel. Transparency with academic integrity and student discipline committee annual reports was raised as an issue because the past two years of reports have not been uploaded, and some are missing from University Box folders.

When asked about the reports, Justin M. Brown, associate dean of students and director for the student conflict resolution office, said the reports in question “are not fully complete, each type for different reasons,” and offered comparable numbers.

Kaler described the discipline process as a system of shared governance led by the Academic Senate in partnership with the Office for Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR). 

“Our experience has been that information presented outside of the formal disciplinary process about a disciplinary action often presents an incomplete portrayal of the facts,” she said in an email. 

Discipline procedures allegedly inconsistent

Both Chen and Ruiz claim there are inconsistencies between the actual procedures and what the University claims. 

Chen’s petition said his representative was not allowed to speak during his hearing. Ruiz said his advisor could not introduce himself, and Ruiz had to do it according to the protocol. 

Ruiz was continuously interrogated by three student conflict office staff, so he asked himself: “can I say a single word throughout the hearing?”

“Like imagine when you went to vote for a political candidate, a police officer or three police officers were there with you while you were voting — this is a very similar situation,” Ruiz said. 

According to the petition, Chen faced “irrelevant and unreasonable” questions during his disciplinary panel. At the GEO press conference, Ruiz mentioned “if a panel member asks a question, [OSCR staff] have the ability to change that question and to ask it in a new way, which is permissible to them.”

“…if you want to seek something like independence of judicial systems here, you are not going to get any,” Chen said.  

GEO members believe there is another crucial problem. It is tied to the definition of the “graduate students workers”: are they students or higher education employees? 

“The answer to that question depends on whatever is most convenient for the University at the given time for the given question,” GEO member Kai Shinbrough said. “So, for example, when it comes to the COVID testing policies, employees of the university, with the exception of graduate employees, were given the exemption from the beginning.” 

Chen noted in the press conference that he was very confused when he read a UIUC MassMail from March 22, where graduate students were included in the list of the “higher education employees”. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 testing protocols treated graduate students as “students” until March 10. 

“They didn’t need to go through administrative red tape or figure out these things as employees —  they were given sort of this luxury,” Shinbrough continued. “Whereas graduate students from the very beginning were put into a category in which they were required to show that they deserved an [testing] exemption for whatever reason.”

“Differences” decide the cases

Shinbrough, who is on the GEO Grievance Committee, explained the similarities and differences between the two cases. 

“Their cases are similar in that they are both graduate students of color and their sanctions are disproportionate to their actions,” he said. “Then the differences decide the outcomes of the situations.”

Chen’s international student status significantly expedited the revision of his case. After his official dismissal, he had only two weeks until his visa would have been terminated. So, he and all his supporters had to move fast. Chen said a representative from the state Senate was worried about his immigration status. So, he guesses, the legislators called the University pressuring it to alter its decision. 

Ruiz is not an international student. He does not have the two-weeks deadline influencing his legal status to increase the chances to speed up the process. 

Ruiz has even more hurdles. He must move out of his apartment in mid-May because he is a resident of University Housing. The University does not allow non-students to live on its properties. 

Ruiz is a student with disabilities who says he cannot take the university saliva COVID test. He also said that he left his apartment only for essential activities. However, the fact that he lives in University Housing means he is not eligible for the testing exemption. Ruiz also claims his case coordinator did not inform him about the nasal testing options even at the time when his disciplinary case was open.  

“The university expects the staple student to actively advocate for themselves to receive testing accommodations,” Ruiz said in the press conference. “As if having a disability was not hard enough.”

Chen said the administration and professors from the Department of Physics reached out to him asking for them to disclose the information of his case to review disciplinary procedures. 

Chen then asked the Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR) for the files to share with his department, but the University has declined to release documents related to the student cases due to privacy. 

“I was willing to give up my rights to my private information,” said Chen. “The university explained that they also have private information in those files with regard to my case. So, I was only one party in that incident, the other party was not willing to disclose the information to anyone outside, to any third-party investigators, even if the third-party investigators are professors from this university.”

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