Community response to history professor misnaming COVID-19

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

On the first day of class, Dr. William Atto’s American Civilization I class received an unconventional syllabus outlining the class’s policies and procedures, wherein Atto referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” 

A picture of the syllabus began to circulate on social media, eliciting reactions throughout the University of Dallas community. Students and alumni took to Instagram and Facebook to voice their opinions.

On Aug. 25, the same day the syllabus was given to students, Leeann Hutson, a 1990 UD alumna, posted her concerns to the UD Alumni Facebook group. “A student that I mentored and recruited to attend UD was confronted with this,” she wrote. 

“This is an Asian student who now feels unwelcome at our alma mater,” she continued. “My student is now afraid of what will happen next. I’m deeply ashamed.”

On Aug. 26, the professor sent an email to his class containing a corrected version of the syllabus. The updated version referred to the coronavirus as “Covid virus” instead.

The email read, “Dear students, it has come to my attention that the syllabus I handed out yesterday had language regarding Covid that was inconsistent with University of Dallas policy, so I have attached a revised syllabus to bring into accord with that policy.” 

One day later, a statement appeared from the Asian Student Association on their Instagram page.“By using ‘China-virus’ as a way to address COVID-19, it promotes discrimination against Asian Americans since it condemns them to be the cause of the virus,” the statement said. 

University practice is to refer to this virus as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 in accord with medical and scientific literature.

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) established that the names of viruses may not include any geographic locations. 

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda in 2015, then the assistant director-general of the WHO.

President Jonathan Sanford said Dr. Atto immediately revised the syllabus upon learning that a student had taken offense. 

“Dr. Atto has for 20 years been providing excellent formation of our students at the University of Dallas, and when he was informed that some offense had been taken at his use of a term that is now rarely used he readily altered the policy section of his syllabus to refer to the university’s protocols regarding COVID using the term the university uses to describe those protocols,” Sanford said.

The professor declined to comment beyond referring to the email he provided students. 

Correction 10:24 a.m., Sept. 17, 2021: The original version of this article inappropriately attributed a quote about university policy to Luciana Hampilos, the director of the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX coordinator. 

Update 10:24 a.m., Sept. 17, 2021: This article has been revised from its original published version to include an updated statement from university President Jonathan Sanford. 

JP Dostalik contributed to this article.