University of Cincinnati parts ways with professor who said 'Chinese Virus'

"For students testing positive for the chinese [sic] virus, I will give no grade," said former adjunct John Ucker in an email last fall.

Now, Campus Reform has learned that the professor will not return to UC despite an investigation concluding "the term Chinese virus did not meet the threshold to be designated harassment."

The University of Cincinnati declined to renew the contract of an adjunct professor who said “Chinese virus” to describe COVID-19, Campus Reform has learned.  

The university’s decision to part ways with John Ucker, who formerly taught at its College of Engineering and Applied Science, follows an incident that made him the center of a national controversy and investigation of allegations of racial harassment.

As Campus Reform reported in September, John Ucker’s journey to the hall of canceled professors began in September 2020, when his student, Evan Sotzing, emailed him to give prior notice of his possible exposure to COVID-19 and absence at an upcoming in-person lab. Sotzing was reportedly quarantined and barred from attending class in person for two weeks.

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Responding to Sotzing’s email, Ucker wrote, “For students testing positive for the Chinese [sic] virus, I will give no grade.”

Speaking to a local reporter, Sotzing said Ucker’s response was highly offensive. 

His “language is completely unacceptable,” he said, “And especially from people, like, in power…it has no place in this country and it contributes to Asian xenophobia.” 

Sotzing shared the email on Twitter, attracting 200,000 engagements, according to one report. Ucker was swiftly reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, which investigates claims of discrimination and harassment, and denounced by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

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“These types of xenophobic comments and stigmatizations around location or ethnicity are more than troubling,” said Dean of Engineering and Applied Science John Weidner  in September 2020, “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.” 

The university placed Ucker on administrative leave for the remainder of the fall semester, and in November 2020, announced that its investigation of the incident determined that “as an isolated reference, the term ‘Chinese virus’ did not meet the threshold to be designated harassment.” 

“However,” it continued, Ucker’s remark “did represent poor judgment, caused offense to members of our community, and distracted from the learning environment.” 

[RELATED: Prof bucks ‘cancel culture’ trend, says purging of Trump officials is ‘misguided’]

On Monday, spokesperson M.B. Reilly told a local Cincinnati newspaper that Ucker would not return to the university. 

Ucker is not the first professor to be criticized for breaking the rules of how to describe the origins of the coronavirus. In August 2020, students at the University of California-Los Angeles demanded that UCLA Computer Science Department Chair Eliezar Gafni be removed from his position after he used “’Wuhan virus’ as an identifier for COVID-19.”  

In August 2020, Campus Reform reported that Syracuse University placed chemistry professor Jon Zubieta on leave for referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Flu” and “Chinese Communist Party Virus” in the syllabus for his inorganic chemistry course. 

And in November 2020,  a retiring dean of library services at Winthrop University was widely condemned for saying “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” in an essay. 

Ucker has not spoken publicly about this story. Neither he, the University of Cincinnati, nor Weidner responded to Campus Reform in time for publication. 

Follow the author of this article: Dion J. Pierre