University reinstates PhD student dismissed for testing noncompliance, after thousands support readmission

A picture of Ivor Chen posted by the Graduate Employees Organization petition. Chen was reinstated at the University on Feb. 16.

Photo Courtesy of GEO

A picture of Ivor Chen posted by the Graduate Employees’ Organization petition. Chen was reinstated at the University on Feb. 16.

By Amrita Bhattacharyya, Staff Writer

The University of Illinois has agreed to reduce the punishment for a fourth-year international Ph.D. student who was dismissed from the University for COVID-19 testing non-compliance, reinstating him at the University. 

Ivor Chen, graduate student in Engineering, was dismissed Jan. 29 for one year at a disciplinary hearing held by the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.

His case caught the eye of the student community and Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University, and a petition supporting his readmission reached 18,000 signatures in a matter of days. 

According to the GEO, on Feb. 16 the Senate Committee for Student Discipline reconvened to evaluate new information related to his case, modifying the original disciplinary order to a dismissal held in abeyance/probation until graduation, two 1,000 word reflective essays and 25 hours of community service.

In Fall 2020, Chen lived with his immunocompromised mother in C-U while working remotely. According to the GEO, Chen did not leave his house except for essential activities.

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According to the GEO, Chen’s visa status was revoked as a result of the dismissal and he and his mother are subject to deportation. 

Throughout the fall semester, Chen took three tests to confirm he was negative. 

On Dec. 11, Chen tried to enter a building on University property to take a certification test by the Society of Actuaries. Upon learning he would need a negative COVID-19 test result, Chen left the building. According to the GEO, Chen did not know the site was on University property. 

On Dec. 21, Chen received a Disciplinary Charge Notice for COVID-19 testing non-compliance. This was the first non-compliance warning Chen received throughout the semester, according to the GEO. 

During the spring semester, Chen applied for and received a testing exemption from McKinley Health Center.  

“The issue with the COVID exemption in the fall was that it also wasn’t well advertised. And we’ve heard from some University administrators that actually to a certain extent this was intentional. They didn’t want to hand out a lot of these exemptions,” Kai Shinbrough, graduate student in Grainger and GEO representative said. 

Chen believed that since he was a graduate employee not working on campus, he was not required to test, according to the GEO. 

Ellie Fujimoto, graduate student in AHS and GEO representative, says the messaging by the University regarding who has to get tested “was very unclear.” 

“I mean, as graduate employees we’re both students and employees so Ivor saw the email that said that employees, if possible, should work from home and thought he was included in that,” Fujimoto said.

Chen must complete 80 hours of community service, two 1,000-word reflective essays, show evidence of successful academic or work history during his year of dismissal and petition to reenter the University after one year. 

Chen was also issued a trespass notification which prohibits him from setting foot on University property. 

“It’s an incredibly disproportionate discipline for someone who was following the guidelines in the spring (of) 2021 when they were clearly communicated,” Becca Maree, GEO representative, said. 

Advith Govindarajan, graduate student in LAS and GEO representative, says the discipline was a “very condescending response” and not designed for international students, especially during a pandemic. 

The GEO exhausted the appeals process to try and reinstate Chen. 

“In the end, it was an honest mistake. Right, I mean he misread an email or he thought that he was in one group when he was actually in another,” Shinbrough said. 

Along with an email and phone campaign targeted at University administrators and after exhausting appeal options, the GEO is working through filing grievances with the University. 

On Feb. 1, the GEO filed a Level 2 Grievance, alleging that the University did not possess just cause for Chen’s dismissal, discriminated against him in the form of disparate treatment and affronted Chen’s mental health. 

The grievance was denied Feb. 5 and only addressed the alleged violation of not possessing just cause for Chen’s dismissal. 

The GEO was in the process of filing a Level 3 Grievance on the part of Chen. 

“(T)he safety, health and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and greater community, especially during this pandemic, is our number one priority. This is why we put the SHIELD safety ecosystem and its requirements in place,” Robin Kaler, spokesperson for the University, wrote in an email. 

According to Stephen Bryan, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, 51 students total have been dismissed from the University for COVID-related violations, with 26 specifically dismissed for violating testing requirements, as of Feb. 16. 

“University administrators have really been pushing the narrative that we’re in this together, we want to keep everyone safe,” Maree said, “and so when we’re facing the deportation of an international Ph.D. student, I think that greatly conflicts with the narrative that’s present right now from university administrators.”

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