REINSTATE ANTONIO RUIZ TO THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

IN BRIEF - Fourth year PhD student Antonio Ruiz has been unfairly dismissed from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for COVID-19 testing non-compliance while sheltering in place. Antonio has numerous health risks and physical disabilities, including a medically diagnosed inability to take the University’s saliva test. Despite this fact, the University is choosing to expel him and evict him from his University apartment. Antonio has appealed this decision with the support of his department, the Associate Dean of his college, and the GEO, but his appeal has been callously denied. On March 10th, the University revised its testing requirements for graduate students living off campus, but it has continued to issue harsh disciplinary measures for testing non-compliance prior to the change and for non-compliance from students in University housing. After the public outcry and show of support for Graduate Employee Yidong “Ivor” Chen, the University made no modifications to the COVID-19 disciplinary procedures and continues to unfairly, disproportionately, and callously discipline graduate students.


PETITION TO REINSTATE ANTONIO RUIZ TO THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, LAUNCH AN INVESTIGATORY REVIEW ON UNJUST STUDENT DISCIPLINE

In the Fall semester of 2020, fourth-year PhD student, teaching assistant, and member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) Antonio Ruiz lived by himself in University housing while working remotely for the University of Illinois. For medical reasons, Antonio is unable to take the University’s saliva test. Furthermore, his health conditions place him at increased risk for adverse effects due to COVID-19. The University’s own Staff Physician at McKinley Health Center has testified to Antonio’s inability to participate in the University’s saliva testing program. Because of his increased health risks, Antonio rarely left his house, only leaving for essential activities, or to go on socially distanced walks as recommended by his doctors. 

On October 20th, 2020, Antonio received a UIUC disciplinary notice of testing noncompliance. Antonio communicated with a University case investigator, and did not dispute his prior testing non-compliance. He was not given the opportunity to participate in a hearing or argue his case in front of a panel representing the Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR). As a consequence of this disciplinary notice, Antonio was placed on University Probation. 

Following this disciplinary charge, Antonio attempted to apply for a testing exemption. In the University's January 15th Massmail about COVID-19 testing exemptions, the University stated that “only students who are living locally and NOT coming to campus are eligible to request an exemption”. Since Antonio lives in University housing, he was not eligible for an exemption. No information was given in this or future emails about the nasal swab alternative test until later in the Spring semester. Even during Antonio’s initial disciplinary procedures, the University’s case coordinator did not inform Antonio of alternative testing measures.

After failing to secure a testing exemption, Antonio received a second UIUC disciplinary notice of testing non-compliance on March 9th. Having witnessed the University’s callous attempts to dismiss Ivor Chen, and observing the GEO’s efforts arguing for Ivor’s reinstatement, Antonio contacted his union to learn what his options were to appeal the initial charges. Antonio met with an advisor, and was in this instance able to argue his situation in front of a panel from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR). 

On March 25th, 2021, Antonio and a representative from the GEO met with the OSCR. At this hearing, Antonio testified to his strong desire to remain testing compliant, his medical inability to test, and his ineligibility for a testing exemption. He then asked for a more lenient punishment than dismissal. He provided numerous supporting documents demonstrating his existing medical conditions, and letters of support from his advisor, his TA supervisor, the Chair of his department, his department’s Director of Graduate Studies, and an Associate Dean of his college. In response, the panel told Antonio that he should have proactively sought out accommodations for his disabilities. When asked to consider the letters of support testifying to Antonio’s character and the effects dismissal would have on him, the panel demonstrated disinterest towards this supporting documentation, failing to accurately summarize the contents of the letter or their signatories. 

After deliberating for less than 15 minutes, the panel reconvened and issued the following discipline for Antonio’s testing non-compliance:

  1. Dismissal from the University, effective immediately.
  2. Trespass Notification, excluding Antonio from entering any University property effective immediately: including Antonio’s primary residence in University housing. 
  3. One 1,000-word reflective essay.
  4. A petition letter for University re-entry after 1 year.
  5. Evidence of successful academic or work history during his 1 year dismissal.

Antonio appealed to these sanctions on April 1st, presenting new medical documentation attesting to his inability to test and pointing to the fact that other graduate students found non-compliant in the Spring semester were given less severe sanctions than probation. Nevertheless, his appeal was denied by the panel.

Such sanctions are insulting and it is unclear how Antonio can even remain compliant with these requirements. Antonio is immediately dismissed and has been issued a trespass notification from the University, which prevents him from entering any University building, with the implicit threat of force from the University of Illinois Police Department. However, as a resident of University housing, Antonio was informed separately by his Case investigator that he would have 30 days from the denial of his appeal to vacate his University apartment. At present, Antonio is still unclear what his other expectations are as related to these disciplinary sanctions. For example, he is still participating in the alternative nasal swab testing protocol in order to remain in compliance with University COVID-19 testing. However, all such tests occur in University buildings, precisely those places he was forbidden from accessing.

Although Antonio has attempted to comply with the University testing program, he was medically unable to do so, and he was not informed of alternative testing procedures until he received a second disciplinary charge over the Spring semester. Upon learning of the nasal swab accommodation as an alternative means of remaining testing compliant, he immediately applied for and was granted the nasal swab accommodation. Antonio then immediately entered into COVID-19 testing compliance and has since regularly been testing twice a week. This alternative testing procedure was available but was not communicated in any of the University’s prior Massmails until Mid-March. This reflects confusing expectations and messaging from the University, in addition to a lack of empathy for students with disabilities. 

Antonio has received support from his Department Chair, his Director of Graduate Studies, and the Associate Dean for his college. In emails and letters, they explained that this disciplinary action was vastly disproportionate to Antonio’s alleged offense. Graduate Employees have had the lowest transmission rates for COVID-19 of anyone in the Champaign-Urbana community [1]. It is precisely this type of evidence that led the University to stop requiring weekly COVID-19 tests for Graduate Employees. Consistent with this, Antonio has been an exceedingly cautious individual, following all of the CDC’s recommended guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

After he is evicted from University housing, Antonio will have to relocate to live with his family in Miami, Florida. Moving across the country presents a clear danger to Antonio’s health and well-being. He is at high risk for medical complications due to COVID-19, which makes it more dangerous for him to move to a state with uncontrolled COVID-19 transmission rates. The University appeal committee was made aware of all Antonio’s medical conditions, as well as the disproportionate consequences that dismissal would have for Antonio. However, the committee callously and hastily decided to dismiss Antonio anyway. 

The GEO is pursuing all available means to support Antonio, reverse his dismissal decision, and ensure he receives pay and a tuition waiver for the Spring semester. But the University administration shows no sign of empathy or willingness to support Antonio in a meaningful way. If the GEO and the University are unable to reach a mutually agreeable compromise, we will be forced to explore other means to ensure Antonio gets justice.


[1] In the University's November 10th Massmail, they reported that since measuring transmission rates for specific populations, Graduate students had the lowest seven-day positivity rate of any group on campus.