A simple in-person admonition to instructor John Ucker, who teaches mechanical and materials engineering at the University of Cincinnati, would have sufficed to correct the egregious misstep described in the title, at least egregious by the lights of “thousands of people.” But Ucker has instead been suspended for calling Covid-19 “the chinese virus”. You can see the story at the local news site in Cincinnati (click screenshot below) or at Inside Higher Ed.
The university has put on administrative leave an engineering professor who used the term “Chinese virus” when talking about the coronavirus. The communication went viral.
“I really just want him to apologize,” said Evan Solzing, a UC engineering student. “I want a sincere apology for his comment.”
Sotzing is referring to a comment Professor John Ucker made to him via email after he told Ucker he was quarantined due to the coronavirus and couldn’t make it to lab.
The professor responded, “For students testing positive for the chinese (sic) virus, I will give no grade.”
“I was shocked at first that anyone in power, any professor, would say that because of how xenophobic it is and how much of a racist comment it is,” Sotzing said
So, he posted the email, it went viral and thousands of people weighed in, demanding the professor be ousted.
Thousands of people demanded that he be fired? Students hurt and shocked? Seriously, people still refer to the 1918 pandemic as “The Spanish flu”—not because people were anti-Spanish racists, but because the flu was thought to have come from Spain, just like Covid-19 came from China. Maybe Ucker was thinking of it that way. If so, then he’s not a racist.
Now I wouldn’t use that term, as it is insensitive, and Chinese-Americans or Chinese nationals have been badmouthed by Americans for either supposedly carrying the virus or being held responsible for it. But to put the guy on leave is simply ridiculous. I would have called him in for a chat, explained why he shouldn’t use the term, and tell him not to do it again. End of story.
But of course the University put him on leave and proffered a fulsome apology. From Inside Higher Ed:
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.”
This is known as cancellation. And shouldn’t they ask about intent before kicking somebody’s butt out the door? At least one person got it right:
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.”
I think that’s about right. But people don’t want gentle corrective action, even if it stops the slur. Ending the problem is not enough these days. People want the instructor’s head on a platter. I hope they don’t get it.
Could it be the pandemic that’s getting people overly riled up this way?