More college overkill: Professor suspended for using the term “chinese virus” to refer to Covid-19

September 22, 2020 • 1:15 pm

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.

An excerpt:

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?

h/t: William

63 thoughts on “More college overkill: Professor suspended for using the term “chinese virus” to refer to Covid-19

  1. I got that IHE story in my inbox this morning. The focus on the “chinese virus” phrase seems to miss the more important problem: the university told this student to quarantine and stay away from labs, then one of the university’s instructors gave that quarantined student a zero for a missed lab assignment. No matter what the instructor’s politics (or carelessness about phrasing), the zero grade is wrong because of the required quarantine, and shows appalling lack of compassion for the student. At my university, where accommodating students’ response to COVID is a priority, that would get an instructor hauled into the Dean’s office.

    1. It’s not clear to me that he gave the student a zero: he said “no grade”, which I interpreted as that portion of the course wouldn’t count for the student. The fact that everyone’s making a big deal about the term but not about (and I agree) getting a zero for the assignment leads me to believe that the prof didn’t give a zero for the assignment. If he did, THAT would be a more serious offense.

      1. That’s how I interpreted it too. I.e., the instructor is excluding from the grade any assignment missed due to quarantine.

        Whether the comment was a poorly thought out joke or a bit of conservative editorializing, I think the “disciplinary” action should be the same: the department lead and school says “don’t do that again,” and that’s it. Not administrative leave.

        1. I’m over-posting on this, but sorry, what you see as “a bit of conservative editorializing” I see as the parroting of a phrase invented by Mass Murderer donald in his racist attempt to blame others for the ongoing murderous results of his evil policies.

          And what I think is your mischaracterization of the attitude, which leads a university lecturer to be such a parrot, seems in a way to be that murderer’s help in this the worst and most harmful of his cons.

          1. Whatever you think of the President and his policies (and trust me, I’m no fan), I don’t think it should be a firing offense to parrot some right-wing meme back to a student in a brief email.

            This gets right to the center of the academic freedom debate; you’re basically calling for college professors and lecturers not to speak any conservative thoughts, lest they be fired. I reject that. I reject it both on the principle of the matter (i.e. it is good to allow people to disagree with each other, and voice such thoughts, in an academic setting), and on the pragmatics of it (i.e. think twice before you set the precedent of making it fine to fire lecturers for badspeak, because the next administration may define your positions as badspeak).

            I’m not defending the substantrce of his comment. I’m certainly not defending Trump’s handling of the virus. But I AM saying that the disciplinary action should fit the ‘crime’, and in this case, the ‘crime’ is a minor faux pas.

    2. Yes it wasn’t clear from the instructor’s email. The student’s tweet says “my professor [gave] me a zero for not going [to the lab]” which seems clearer. I guess the student may have misunderstood what the consequence would be (leaving out that lab grade versus a zero for that lab). Wouldn’t be the first time a student misunderstood a grading scheme…

  2. If the guy meant it in an innocent way, he should explain that, in writing, to all the students, and apologize, but only for not explaining in the first place.

    If meant in a non-innocent way, then tough luck for him, I guess it’s one strike and you’re out if he meant it just as racist Mass Murderer donald means it.

    I’m afraid I’d reserve my sympathy for somebody other than him.

    1. Yes, I agree. Professor Ucker has been living under a rock if he thinks his characterization of the virus was innocent. I suspect he did it, and imposed an unjust grade penalty for it, because he aligns with the cult of Trump. If I’m wrong in my analysis, please correct me.

      1. I think there is validity to what you both have pointed out, and it’s likely what’s happened here. El Capitan Shenanigans has already weaponized that term, and only a fool, a provocateur or a racist would use it now in such a public way. Some people may kid about it in private, but saying it publicly is hard to pass off as a joke.

  3. “…This is known as cancellation. And shouldn’t they ask about intent before kicking somebody’s butt out the door?” – J. Coyne

    They won’t, because intentions are totally irrelevant from the Woke’s postmodernistic point of view:

    “[F]or [Jacques] Derrida, the speaker’s meaning has no more authority than the hearer’s interpretation and thus intention cannot outweigh impact. Thus, if someone says that there are certain features of a culture that can generate problems, and I choose to interpret this statement as a dog whistle about the inferiority of that culture and take offense, there is no space in Derridean analysis to insist that my offense followed from a misunderstanding of what had been said. The author’s intentions are irrelevant, when those can be known, due to Derrida’s adaptation of Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘the death of the author’.”

    (Pluckrose, Helen, and James Lindsay. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity; and Why This Harms Everybody. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2020. p. 40)

    1. For a moment, I read “from the WOOKIEE’s postmodernistic point of view”. In retrospective, a fitting Freudian slip, as the cancellation mob acts quite similar to a mob of angry Wookiees.

  4. One common explanation of why the 1918 epidemic was called the Spanish Flu is that, since Spain was one of the few European nations that was not a combatant in WWI, it did not have the level of press censureship in place that the recently-warring nations did. The Spanish press published freely about the epidemic while in other nations the bad news was suppressed.

    1. With regard to the appellation ‘Spanish Flu’, I agree this is set out in detail in The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (Penguin, 2004). You beat me to it with your comment, Lee!

    1. Yes, and maybe now the Norwegian rat will become the Chinese rat. The first is utterly unfair I believe, and probably so would the other be dead wrong factually, besides stinking of racism.

    1. I don’t think checkers has killed something well over a million humans just yet.

      But a thing, also starting in English with “c” has, in the sense of persons who would still be here if that coronavirus had never happened, but are not.

      1. Ha ha! We also played Chinese handball. I think “Chinese” came from being different or exotic, and nobody meant anything by it. Chinese virus, however, differs from Coxsackie virus or Norovirus (named after Norwalk) in that when Mr. Trump uses the term he very definitely means to pin the blame for the virus on the Chinese. In other words, Spanish flu is descriptive, whereas Chinese virus is pejorative and intended to be so. The professor was very foolish to use the term, but he did not deserve the degree of opprobrium he got.

  5. Can’t wait for the history professor to get tossed out over the “Spanish Flu”.

    Its a weird religion that the professional managerial class has taken up.

    What qualifications do you need to become a systemic witch hunter?

    What exactly happens when someone mutters the magic bad word again?

    Also, you get more social cohesion and theatricality if you chuck the taboo-breaker down the volcano or burn them at the stake then you do by simply canning them. Wokeness is way too bourgeoisie to ever get the masses behind it.

    1. Maybe the professor will be, and he certainly shouldn’t.

      But there is a big difference between

      1/ a phrase which has been universally used in English for a century; and

      2/ a phrase coined by Mass Murderer donald because he is a racist, but mainly because he wants to slither out from under the responsibility for probably about 150,000 of the 250,000 Usian deaths so far, doing that however he can, in this case by trying to blame it on others. The numbers are increased by 30 to 35% because that’s what actual deaths minus statistical deaths will be at least for this past 6 months.

      There seem to be an awful lot of less than thoughtful people who otherwise detest almost all that Drumpf does, yet who cannot see how they are helping him achieve his biggest con of the many he’s foisted on people.

      1. He’s not doing it because he is racist. He is doing it because he wants to externalise the blame for the tragedy that is unfolding in the USA. China is an ideal scapegoat because it

        a) is where the virus originated

        b) is an Evil Socialist dictatorship that is America’s enemy (at least in Trump’s mind).

        Given that about 25% of the cases in the World are in the USA, I think there is a good case to call this the American Virus.

        1. “Given that about 25% of the cases in the World are in the USA, I think there is a good case to call this the American Virus.”

          Sure but you are ignoring the convention that names viruses for their point of origin. It’s a dumb convention that I understand is no longer used by the scientific community. AFAIK, using that convention is not (yet) a crime, though perhaps it would be if the Woke get their way.

          1. I’m not ignoring it, I am embracing and extending it (see also bullet point “a” in the post to which you were replying).

            Actually, I have changed my mind. If the objective of the name is to convey who you want to blame for the virus, there’s a good case for calling it the Trump virus. That would be apt because Trump is responsible for it being as bad as it is in the US and many people are saying it’s the best virus ever. They’ve never seen anything like it.

  6. One thing intriguing about political correctness and wokeness as an ideological structure that is interesting is there is real no appeal to a higher authority.

    Marxism claimed to be scientific and based on economics, Nazism had its race science, Neoliberalism has neoclassical economics to offer on its behalf, but wokeness is an evangelical ideology based on personal testimony of the holy ones. Its a real throw back to the tent revival in this respect. . . and frankly, the 1980’s televangelists were slicker and had more showmanship than Robin DiAngelo will ever have.

  7. “Ending the problem is not enough these days. People want the instructor’s head on a platter.”

    The pleasure of self-righteousness and hatred, especially for those who are emotionally immature and unaccomplished in any sense, is a heady, powerful emotion. I wish people had the self-honesty to recognize that the reaction of all these pained, offended, shocked, mortally wounded students (and I’m sure not all of them are students) is indistinguishable from the joys of bullies on the playground.

    But more seriously, these incidents give credence to stereotype of “libs” pushed in right wing media, and undoubtedly has the effect of pushing people towards Trumpism and tyranny. Because the alternative is to give into crybabies, they will argue. And the pleasure of some of these people at “making the libs cry” they don’t try to hide, but flaunt openly.

    Beyond my wish that these kids (and non-kids) would just GROW THE HELL UP, I wish they’d realize the harm they’re doing to all of us.

    1. People want the instructor’s head on a platter.

      Did the university have a choice, given that the target was a “John”?
      I suppose it could have been worse – the offended student could have been a “Salome”.

  8. “I renounce Racism and all his work and ways, and surrender myself to You, O triune God, Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, , in belief, obedience, and the earnest resolution to remain faithful to You until my end. Amen.”

    Brother Lee, you sound like you are backsliding on your vows.

  9. I don’t think the university should even comment on his use of “Chinese virus”. Why isn’t the social media clamor against his comment enough? Why does punishment for such an offense need to be at the institutional level? It’s just crazy.

    1. Do you think the university would also have no business interfering if he had made some comment about special consideration for his female students, any who had recently been attacked by “Mexican rapists”?

          1. Talking about rape is fraught with difficulties, depending on the context as all statements do. I don’t see how it has anything to do with a professor referring to a virus that, as far as anyone knows, originated in China. You are making a false analogy in order to trade a real and innocuous statement for one loaded with trouble. You aren’t discussing this issue in good faith so I’m done with it.

          2. The reason WHO and other health organizations avoid labeling disease by place of origin or detection is to avoid the stigma that might attach to the place. I understand there are people who won’t visit the pleasant little town of Lyme Connecticut out of fear of catching the disease. But stigmatization is not racism. Calling covid the “Chinese virus” may stigmatize China, although I doubt it. Identifying a rapist as Mexican is racism because it implies that Mexicans are rapists.

            Also, because tRump uses a word or phrase does not mean others who use it are necessarily tRump supporters. That is stigmatization of words. Are we going to let tRump determine what we can say or not say? Enough with your language policing, please.

  10. Ebola fever: after a river in the Congo, nothing wrong with that.
    Zika virus: a forest in Uganda, groovy.
    Lyme disease: a town in Connecticut, yeh!
    Rocky Mountain spotted fever: a NA mountain range, so?
    Spanish flu for a virus that likely originated in Kansas: cool!
    Wuhan coronavirus: what racist xenophobic rant.

    1. I assume it was not dishonesty, but rather an inadvertent slip-up, that lead to your phrase “Wuhan coronavirus”, rather than the “Chinese virus”, which seems to have been the actual phrase.

      To me there is an enormous difference, for several reasons.

    2. “Ebola fever: after a river in the Congo, nothing wrong with that . . .Wuhan coronavirus: what racist xenophobic rant.”

      How about Legionnaires disease? And “MERS,” “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome”? Is it that most people simply don’t know that the “ME” in “MERS” means “Middle East,” otherwise they’d have a problem with “MERS” as an identifier? (It seems that epidemiological types could easily enough have used a COVIDesque nomenclature for this malady if it occurred to them and they wanted to.)

      I reasonably take it that identifying the vector(s) and locating the origin of a disease is a reasonable and appropriate epidemiological goal. What if any verbiage is one allowed to use to denote where a disease originates – latitude and longitude? Or will that also become verboten?

  11. Jerry has in earlier days had plenty of good examples of bad ‘woke’ behaviour. But it’s pretty clear from my over-posting above that I seriously doubt this one is all that good. And I really doubt this is much of a free speech matter. The university’s reaction may very well be motivated by caving in to the wokifiers. But it does seem to me they could have a perfectly good alternative justification.

    In any case, his academic department is large. But Mr. Ucker doesn’t seem to be listed, though maybe I missed him. Being removed this fast from their website seems unlikely. Never being on it as a temp is also a possibility,

    I do wonder whether, rather than from Drumpf, he got his “Chinese virus” phrase from conversations with
    Jay Kim,  Professor, Department Head,
    or maybe from
    Jay Lee,  Ohio Eminent Scholar and L.W. Scott Alter Chair Professor in Advanced Manufacturing.

    There are lots of other colleagues whose names would indicate that many of them have had some reason to think about that phrase:

    Janet Jiaxiang Dong, Junhang Dong, Yao Fu, Chia Chi Ho, Xiaodong Jia, Woo Kyun Kim, Donglu Shi, Jing Shi, Sang Young Son, Fu-Lin Tsung, Wei Wang, Yongfeng Xu, I.C. Wang, Peng Zhang.

    There are many other such tenured or at least tenure track people in his department of course.

    But rather, perhaps he was accidentally viewing Fox when he realized this was a very amusing way to express himself.

    Even if he never did have a permanent job in that department, at least he’ll likely be looking forward to voting to select the Ohio delegation to the Electoral College.

  12. How can one punish someone so harshly with a president who says this all the time? I agree that explaining that calling our plague “the Chinese flu” is insensitive and has resulted in attacks against Asians should be enough.

    1. “…calling our plague “the Chinese flu” is insensitive…”

      ‘Chinese virus’ I think, but that’s neither here nor there.

      I’d add that this was done to his own student or students in the course of carrying out his official teaching duties. Again, that addendum is a huge aspect which must be considered. Most of the criticizers of the university here seem to be oblivious to this.

      Can one doubt that his class had a number of students from China, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or with Chinese USian parents?

      1. But is it really that insensitive? Correct me if I’m wrong but don’t the Chinese even admit that the virus started in China? It’s not a name I would use but it hardly seems like it is offensive as it doesn’t really say that the Chinese are virus-ridden and, I assume, the intent was not to insult the Chinese. Finally, Trump insists on using the phrase and I assume his followers, a big chunk of the country, are ok with it. What if the professor is a Trump supporter that is merely echoing the sentiments of the current US president?

        1. I had assumed that you and a few others here were aware of the difference between:
          1/ just plain ignorant shooting one’s mouth off, as opposed to
          2/ doing that in the course of carrying out one’s teaching duties, apparently even the part where you are performing evaluations, where you have power over the fate of those students. Some are very likely to be of Chinese extraction, maybe many.

          If you do not accept the importance of that difference, and that in some instances the university should step in, then we must just leave the matter as a difference of opinion.

          Note that this is not some social scientist, in teaching their sort of course some years from now, about the topic of this virus curse on humanity, a time when maybe (very doubtful) the judgement of the technical experts now, on the topic of this virus being definitely not a deliberate evil invention of some person, might have become questioned by experts.

          I’ve above asked for an explanation from you, and what I’ve written here needs to be considered there as well.

          Do you actually think that ‘merely echoing the sentiments’ of Drumpf, on foreign visitors and immigrants, to your class full of such people, or even just to others of the class when performing your teaching duties, is perfectly fine?

  13. I prefer an environment where people do not have to walk on eggshells. Minor flaws like this one should be tolerated, and although I would not say Chinese virus myself I would never punish someone for doing that.

    1. This is not an instance of some random person mouthing off and “walking on eggshells”.

      It is a case of someone, given responsibility to teach a course to a student group with varied backgrounds, speaking in the course of exercising his evaluation powers over those students.

      1. … who was suspended for calling a virus that, for all we know originated from a chinese province, a chinese virus.

        If naming something after its most likely place of origin gets you suspended for xenophobia and racism isn’t walking on eggshells, I don’t know what is.

  14. If would be easier to understand if it had been a verbal slip rather than written in an email. But an apology should be enough for everyone to move on.

    And for someone to be hauled over the coals for something that the “president” intones every day seems a bit rich. It reminds me of the kid in Ali Smith’s new novel Summer who gets suspended from school for using racist and homophobic language, but the phrases he uses are deliberately the exact same wording used by Boris Johnson.

  15. “Those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.” (National Post, Feb-2006, referring to the “Danish Cartoon Controversy”.)

  16. Though it’s not a back-and-forth between just two people, I’ve posted way too much here.

    However to answer all of recent replies to me from


    one thing only needs to be said. They carefully avoid what should have been obvious to all, so I repeat again:

    This instructor was not merely making a speech to shoot his mouth off, and not even lecturing with including this Drumpf slime. He was speaking to one or more students in the context of his judgement of his students’ performance in the course where he had considerable power over those students. If you see no difference there, at least we now know that.

    People here who think Mass Murderer donald was merely making a geographical point are at best extraordinarily naive. At worst, pick your poison.

    1. His reference to “Chinese” was not an important part of his message. Correct me if I’m wrong but he was just saying that he wasn’t accepting infection as an excuse not to take an exam (or something like that). He was not addressing Chinese students for any special treatment. In short, if he had said “COVID-19” instead of “Chinese virus”, the meaning of the message would not have been different.

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