The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents last month fired a UW-Stout engineering professor for failing to wear a mask while on campus last year, according to documents obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.
A disciplinary investigation file released this week shows Regents on July 8 voted unanimously to adopt an order of dismissal for UW-Stout engineering professor Pavel Bizyukov because he didn’t wear a mask in the classroom on Sept. 9, 2020, as required by UW-Stout and the board, and because he did not follow a process to obtain an exception to the mask requirement.
Firing a professor is rare in the UW System, where it’s happened only six other times since 2010, a Wisconsin State Journal review of records found.
The records show Bizyukov expressed a preference to teach in person during the fall 2020 semester, but still didn’t wear a mask.
The release of records related to Bizyukov’s case comes at an inflection point for UW campuses. Classes start in just a few weeks and the delta variant of the coronavirus is dispelling hopes for a somewhat normal fall semester. The System is grappling with how to respond to efforts by Republican lawmakers to control campuses’ virus-related protocols, such as mask mandates and required testing for unvaccinated individuals, while instructors are requesting more such measures.
UW-Stout is one of several schools within the System that is not requiring masks indoors this coming school year. Instead, the university is “expecting” everyone to wear a facial covering.
UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank found grounds for Bizyukov’s termination in November, and those charges were upheld by a UW-Stout faculty committee following an evidentiary hearing. The Board of Regents’ Personnel Matters Review Committee unanimously determined in May that there was just cause for Bizyukov’s termination.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Regents passed a unanimous resolution in July 2020 requiring System schools to require that students and employees wear masks in all university buildings during the 2020-21 school year, after which UW-Stout issued a mask requirement in its “return to work” plan.
The plan required UW-Stout employees to wear masks in all university buildings and for employees seeking a disability-related exception to the rule to follow a formal process.
According to the Board of Regents’ final order in the matter, interim Dean Gindy Neidermyer and department chair Thomas Lacksonen brought a complaint against Bizyukov in September 2020 for not wearing a mask on campus, including while teaching an in-person class. Bizyukov was then placed on paid administrative leave.
Concerns about Bizyukov surfaced during the third week of August 2020, when Bizyukov’s colleague saw that he wasn’t wearing a mask and reported him to university officials, who then reminded Bizyukov of the masking requirement.
Bizyukov explained he has difficulty breathing with a mask, and university officials later provided him with links to fill out a formal accommodation request.
According to the final order, Bizyukov never filed a formal request, but instead questioned the university’s authority to mandate masks. He later sent an email on Sept. 8, the day before classes began, informing a human resources officer he planned on teaching his in-person classes without a mask unless his questions about the university’s authority were answered.
An instructor witnessed Bizyukov teaching his class without a mask on the morning of Sept. 9.
The UW-Stout faculty committee found that Bizyukov admitted to not wearing a mask despite numerous warnings from the university that not doing so without requesting an accommodation would result in disciplinary action.
Bizyukov accused UW-Stout officials of being in breach of contract. He also accused them of failing to establish just cause and providing evidence, specifically for the basis on which a mask requirement can be enforced.
In a statement accompanying the termination documents, Bizyukov said university and system officials declined to discuss the lawfulness of mask orders as a condition of employment.
In his statement, Bizyukov further claimed that mask-wearing for a prolonged period of time is “well proven by scientific literature” to be “harmful and dangerous for people’s health, myself included.”
Hundreds of epidemiologists, scientists and public health experts have repeatedly said over the past year and a half that wearing a mask is a safe and effective tool to reduce transmission of COVID-19.
Bizyukov earned about $91,000 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, records show.
State Journal reporter Kelly Meyerhofer contributed to this report.