As the University of Missouri reportedly approaches 1, 185 positive cases of the coronavirus, Chancellor and President Mun Choi has blocked students from viewing his Twitter account after they voiced concerns about the school’s handling of the outbreak.
It ultimately took a lawsuit threat from one student for Choi to unblock them.
The public university, which is conducting half of its fall classes online and the other half remotely, has come under fire from students for what they believe to be unclear guidelines and lackluster protections against further outbreaks at the school.
For instance, Mizzou’s administration in a matter of days switched from only enforcing mask mandates inside on-campus buildings to now requiring them everywhere in what students said was an abrupt switch. Students also mentioned concerns about testing availability from the university. Only those presenting symptoms of the virus or those who’ve been contacted by a contact tracer are eligible to receive a test.
“It’s been a mess,” Eli Hoff, the managing editor of MU’s student newspaper The Maneater, told The Daily Beast, adding that “lack of enforcement” of existing rules had been a key problem. “We just want transparency.”
One student, Cannon Summers, noticed that despite placards in the school’s bathrooms urging students to wash their hands, none of the automatic faucets worked. Summers posted a video of the issue and tagged Choi, along with Vice Chancellor Bill Stackman.
Minutes later, Summers wrote that Choi had blocked him. “Definitely a professional approach to addressing covid concerns,” the student wrote. “Real class act.”
Madeline Carter, another student journalist at Mizzou, also criticized the school’s uneven enforcement of its COVID-19 guidelines, telling The Daily Beast that her concerns were heightened because her father suffers from an aggressive form of cancer and is thus immunocompromised.
“Students at this university already feel so silenced,” she said. “We feel like we’re not getting a lot of answers here with COVID and there’s a lot of anger.”
On Wednesday, Carter discovered that she, too, had been blocked by the university’s president.
“My heart dropped,” Carter said. “I thought I was going to get in trouble with the university.” She believed that a tweet in which she joked about Choi’s moped scooter in early August might have set him off to block her.
At the suggestion of a Mizzou alumni, Carter sought advice from attorney Christopher Bennett who told The Daily Beast that the president’s actions were “a failure of leadership,” and infringed on the First Amendment rights of students.
On Wednesday evening, Bennett sent a statement to Choi’s office threatening a lawsuit if he refused to unblock Mizzou students.
“Not only is it immoral and repugnant for President Choi to block students and other persons on social media who are trying to raise awareness of campus safety issues in the middle of a global pandemic, it is also unlawful,” Bennett wrote in the statement.
On Thursday morning, MU spokesperson Christian Basi confirmed to The Daily Beast that no students were blocked on Choi’s personal Twitter account anymore because the university no longer needed the “distraction.” He said that the chancellor received “abusive” and “expletive-filled posts” on Twitter which led him to block accounts.
“President Choi has always been open to having conversations with students on any issue and receiving feedback to help Mizzou move forward,” Basi wrote in the statement. “He personally responds to students and other stakeholders to address their concerns on a regular basis.”
It isn’t the first time Choi has been in hot water as president of the university. In July, he reportedly told faculty members to either leave or agree with his personal stance of keeping a Thomas Jefferson statue that had been at the center of Mizzou protests, according to the Columbia Tribune.
A professor, who asked not to be named due to fears of professional reprisal, said that, following the controversies at MU, Choi should resign.
“I do not get the sense, as a part of the university, that we are working together to achieve anything,” the professor told The Daily Beast. “I get the sense that the administration is fudging numbers, not being clear, and trying to avoid problems for as long as possible until bad news comes.”
Coronavirus cases are still increasing in Missouri. There are more than 97,591 positive cases and 1,691 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Missouri has the fifth highest rate of cases in the country, according to the New York Times’ database.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article said the university had nearly 4,000 cases of coronavirus. However, this figure includes positive tests done by University of Missouri Health Care in its 25-county service area, not just on campus.