A UCR professor recently came under fire from students past and present after a series of videos went viral on social media. The videos posted onto TikTok and Twitter on Oct. 22 have amassed over 7 million views and seemingly showcase Associate Professor of Chemistry Catharine Larsen being dismissive towards her students during CHEM 008A Organic Chemistry (OChem). The videos range from Larsen refusing to answer questions from students regarding issues they are having in the class to documentation of other students and alumni expressing their support for her current students via Twitter. Multiple students also shared claims of being called “morons” by Larsen during her office hours.
The comments of each video became flooded with students demanding that UCR and the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) Department take action to address Larsen’s behavior. “It is absolutely unacceptable for any ‘professional’ professor to address their students in this fashion … UCR please do better,” tweeted UCR alumni, Jorge Huizar. In a followup tweet, Huizar stated that he has taken Larsen’s class before, and this was not the first time that students have complained about her behavior in class. Another student, Ashley Chung, wrote in a tweet, “OChem is hard enough already and it’s clear that Prof. Larsen doesn’t lead a safe learning environment.”
The videos sparked a conversation about the ways that students’ mental health has been affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and online learning. One student, Naomi Venugopal, a second-year biology major, said in a tweet, “Ochem is hard enough as is, a supportive professor would help alleviate some stress.”
Venugopal spoke to The Highlander about her experience in Larsen’s class this quarter. She stated that it was clear from the very first class that Larsen was very intelligent, and Venugopal was excited to learn as much as she could about organic chemistry. That quickly changed after the second lecture, when Larsen’s attitude did too, she stated. Venugopal recalled a situation that was captured on video and posted on TikTok, in which a student asks Larsen for advice on how to keep up with the notes presented in class along with what she says during the lecture. In the video, Larsen replies saying, “Some students can’t, some students can, right? Every student has their skill, right?” Another student then asks, “So there’s no accommodation?” Larsen replies with, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m providing the lecture notes,” and adds, “You guys are in college. You can write it or not. The videos are posted.” At the time of writing, that video has been viewed over 271,000 times.
Venugopal stated that this behavior from Larsen has discouraged her from asking questions in class. “I feel like I ask questions repeatedly which already makes me feel like… an annoyance and a little insecure,” she stated. “Her other sarcastic remarks are just really degrading … she talks about how we waste her time with our questions.” She added that situations like this may further prevent students who already have a hard time asking questions in class due to social anxiety from speaking up about issues they are having because they do not want to be humiliated by their professor. Venugopal stated that the added stresses of the pandemic and online school have only elevated her anxiety and that of her peers and lowered her confidence in the class as well.
Another student, fourth-year political science major Vincent Rasso, added that situations like this can be particularly draining for students who are adjusting to their new learning environments. “There are students who don’t have the advantage to either not have to work, not have to care for their family members and not have to have their WiFi shut down because they can’t afford a better service,” stated Rasso. He added that these situations add an unnecessary pressure for students to teach themselves and it can be incredibly taxing on their mental health. “It makes students feel like they can’t ask questions and causes even more academic barriers,” he stated.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused great challenges for students across the country. In a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the NCHS partnered with the Census Bureau on an experimental data system, known as the Household Pulse Survey, to rapidly determine and monitor the changes in the mental health of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. The survey reported that 44.76% of adults aged 18-29 have experienced symptoms of anxiety disorder from Sept. 30 to Oct. 12 and 39.3% have experienced symptoms of depressive disorder. This is a stark contrast from the data collected from the NCHS National Health Interview Survey released on Sept. 23, which reported that in 2019, 19.5% of adults aged 18-29 experienced symptoms of anxiety and 21% experienced symptoms of depression.
Michelle Ho, third year biology major, who posted the video onto her Twitter account, also spoke to The Highlander and discussed how this situation may negatively affect the reputation of UCR and discourage prospective students from applying this November. She shared the sentiments of both Rasso and Venugopal stating, “With this pandemic our mental health has been going downhill… for [professors] to be more patient would help us out a lot.”
In an interview with The Highlander, Director of News & Information for University Communications John Warren provided a comment on behalf of both CNAS Dean Kathryn Uhrich and the Office of the Chancellor. “UCR takes all student, faculty, and staff matters seriously, particularly when it comes to the well-being of our community members,” stated Warren. He went on to state that “All members of the university community must work to maintain an atmosphere in which neither students nor faculty feel harassed or threatened.” He acknowledged the challenges that the campus community may face in the midst of the pandemic and with the upcoming presidential election and stated that these challenges bring about a level of uncertainty that makes campus support services like UCRs Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Office of the Ombuds more critical than ever. In regards to the TikTok video, Warren stated that it is being reviewed to determine an appropriate response from the university.
On Thursday, Oct. 29, CNAS Dean Kathryn Uhrich and Chemistry Department Chair Len Mueller met with about 180 students who are currently in Larsen’s class about the situation at hand and offered their assistance. According to Venugopal, who was in attendance, the meeting was extremely informative and helpful. Dean Uhrich and Mueller announced that they had seen the TikTok and Twitter videos as well as received multiple emails from students concerning their experience in the class. The meeting served as an open forum where some students voiced their issues with the class while others stated that the videos were taken out of context and Professor Larsen’s reactions were justified. “Thankfully, they have taken action and were open to listening to our concerns,” stated Vanogupal.
Dean Uhrich offered her support for the students, stating that she taught organic chemistry for 20 years and understood the pressure they must be facing trying to learn such difficult material. Mueller added that as a parent of students who are also in the UC system, he also understands the frustrations that they are feeling and stated that their stories were hard for him to hear. Uhrich and Mueller explained that there is a formal and informal process to addressing the situation: informal being talking to students on a personal level and listening to their concerns and formal being administrative action.
Like the Office of the Chancellor, Uhrich and Mueller referred students to more campus support services where they could voice their concerns in the future.