International student at Willamette law school alleges she was expelled due to disability discrimination

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
March 1, 2022 1 p.m.

Willamette law says the student violated the honor code; the student says the school did not appropriately support or accommodate her

Charlie Li recalls an exciting arrival on Willamette University’s Salem campus.

“I still remember the first day when I had that Presidential Scholarship dinner,” Li said, thinking back to a conversation she had with the law school dean about why she wanted to be an attorney. “We talked about race and gender — the inequalities in the current societies, the American Bar Association.”


That Presidential Scholarship, covering full tuition at Willamette University’s College of Law, was a big reason Li chose to study at the private university after she earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon. Law school was the first big step toward her goal of becoming an attorney and advocating for people from marginalized communities, like herself.

“As a minority, as a female, I wanted to be a voice for people like me,” Li said. “I want to fight for justice.”

Charlie Li is an international student who says Willamette University unfairly dismissed her from the College of Law program. Li, here at her home on Jan. 12, 2022, appealed the school’s decision to no avail, leading to the termination of her student visa and health insurance.

Charlie Li is an international student who says Willamette University unfairly dismissed her from the College of Law program. Li, here at her home on Jan. 12, 2022, appealed the school’s decision to no avail, leading to the termination of her student visa and health insurance.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Li is an international student with disabilities. She is from Asia but has requested to withhold the name of her country of origin, due to privacy and safety concerns. For the same reasons, she’s using a nickname she uses with friends and on social media, rather than her legal first name.

She has cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions including severe bradycardia and gastroparesis. Some of her conditions are potentially life-threatening and require Li to have a central line — an intravenous tube in her chest through which she gets infusions to manage her blood pressure — and a feeding tube through her abdomen.

Li provided OPB with after-visit summaries, doctors’ notes and diagnoses, many of which were dated during her time at Willamette.

Late last year, Willamette’s College of Law dismissed Li after concluding she violated the institution’s honor code and threatened a classmate. Li denies that.

“It’s just been really hard, and now I have to be in this situation that I just struggle to be alive,” she said.

It took 14 weeks for Li to go from the excitement of starting law classes at Oregon’s oldest university to being thrown out by an opaque college committee. Li’s rapid fall — from a budding Presidential Scholar to an uprooted former student — points to difficulties faced by students with complex needs when they confront established norms at longstanding Oregon institutions. Li faced cultural and linguistic challenges as an international student and dealt with barriers as a person with disabilities. An OPB investigation suggests Li was met with suspicion and discipline when she sought help.

Li spent the first few weeks of her first semester at the law school butting up against unfamiliar processes and people. Her adjustment felt especially difficult as an international student whose first language is not English at a primarily white private institution.

Li says she felt like she was not receiving the support she needed and was sometimes actively discriminated against.

OPB reached out to Willamette University multiple times about Li’s situation. Rather than making administrators available for interviews, Willamette responded in writing through a public relations firm. In a written statement, the university said it does not dismiss students on the basis of their disability status.

Li’s dismissal resulted in the termination of her student visa, meaning she’s now facing deportation. It also caused Li to lose her health insurance, raising questions about how she will pay her medical bills.

Li can’t get state health insurance because she’s not a U.S. citizen and does not have qualifying residency statuses, such as a Green Card or refugee status. In the past few months, she’s been paying out-of-pocket for medical care — mostly using money from a GoFundMe campaign. She’s also received donations from supporters online for IV infusion bags and other medical supplies.

“I don’t want this kind of thing to ever happen to another student. It doesn’t matter if they’re international or not,” Li said. “I think what happened to me was really ridiculous.”

Conflicting accounts of law class confrontation lead to Willamette investigation

Li’s issues at Willamette University’s College of Law began at the start of her first semester, late last summer.

A few weeks into the term, Li said, she was bullied by one of her new classmates.

Li said one day the classmate moved past her and almost knocked her over. She said the same student also sat in the seat Li had chosen as her assigned spot and stared at Li in a way she thought was disrespectful. Li emailed the classmate but got no response.

The next day in class, Li said, the student threw an attendance sheet in her face.

“After the class was over, I walked up to [them] and I was like, ‘Hey, I think we need to talk,’ and [the classmate] was like, ‘No, I’m not talking,’” Li recalled.

Li said she told the student: “‘OK, it’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me, but I need to let you know that what you did in class, what you did to me, that wasn’t OK,’ and I was like, ‘I want to let you know that if you’re going to do that again, that I will do the same thing back — I’ll slam those papers back to you.’”

The classmate reported Li to the school, through its Student Affairs Department, alleging that Li had threatened to slap them in the face.

Li prepares to take food through a feeding tube at her home on Jan. 12, 2022.

Li prepares to take food through a feeding tube at her home on Jan. 12, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“I am not physically capable of doing such a thing,” Li told OPB. “My condition left me really exhausted for most of the time. I mean, I’m dealing with pain, like severe pain like every single day.”

Details of the allegations against Li come from reports of two Willamette investigations — one through the university’s student affairs department and one by a committee at the College of Law. Li provided the investigative documents to OPB, and while Willamette officials declined to provide records to OPB, the university was made aware of the specific documents OPB was using and did not question their veracity.

The university barred Li from attending her classes after the student’s report, and it began an investigation in September. Willamette’s Student Code of Conduct allows the school to suspend a student during a conduct review process if needed to “help protect an individual or the University community, property or the normal operations of the University.”

Willamette’s investigation took eight weeks. Over that time, Li wasn’t allowed to attend her classes in person, but the school provided recordings. She was also in and out of the hospital with issues related to her gastrointestinal conditions.

The investigation concluded that Li did threaten to slap the other student, based on the word of the student who made the allegation and one other.

Li insists she didn’t make such a threat, and she says other students in the class heard her refer to slamming the attendance papers, not slapping her classmate. But those students declined to take part in the investigation.

“At least two other students saw it, but for some reason, they refused to testify, but I cannot push them,” Li said.

Li had filed her own report against her accuser at the time of the law class incident, claiming that the classmate was acting toward her in a discriminatory way due to her race and disabilities. The university found that complaint unsubstantiated.

After Willamette concluded its investigation into Li, it placed her on “conduct probation,” meaning that if she had any future violations, she could face serious consequences. The university also gave Li and the other student no-contact orders with each other.

But sanctions from the university administration were only the beginning for Li. A committee at Willamette’s College of Law would follow up with its own investigation and an even heftier penalty.

Language, race, nationality as factors in challenging student experiences

Li said she felt often her language got “sharpenized” when she was advocating for herself — misinterpreted as aggressive, primarily because English is not her first language.

Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings have been challenges for international students since long before Li stepped onto the Salem campus last fall. The Oregon Student Association convened a task force in 2020 and 2021 to delve into concerns from international students. Mamadou Fall, now a senior at Portland State University and student government legislative director, helped lead it.

“The culture may be different; the way we grew up may be different, and so many things may be different, and just assuming that someone means this and that not having to be the case may be a huge mistake,” said Fall, who is from Senegal. “And a huge mistake can bring a lot of misunderstanding.”

Regardless of nationality, non-white students at Willamette’s law school have been pushing the mostly white administration to address tensions on campus for some time, as well.

People gather outside the Mark O. Hatfield Library on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Saturday, April 27, 2019. Lower enrollment in recent years has led to other cuts.

FILE: People gather outside the Mark O. Hatfield Library on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., in April 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

In an email sent last spring to Willamette College of Law administrators, 10 students of color called for anti-racism training for instructors and administrators and a requirement that students take at least two credits of multicultural studies. The email said that students of color were continuously experiencing racist and discriminatory remarks both in the classroom and on campus in general.

Willamette University told OPB it has been working with those students over the past year to address the issues they brought up. That includes adopting a statement on “racism, hate and violence” within the law school, launching an Institutional Equity Committee focused on implementing the goals within that statement and considering a requirement that students take at least one course related to “legal history, structural inequality, discrimination, cultural context or cultural competency.”

Law school administrator raises doubts about Li’s medical condition, inquiry leads to dismissal

Citing a violation of its Student Code of Conduct, Willamette University administration suspended Li, put her on probation and ordered her to avoid the classmate with whom she had a conflict. But, before those punishments were even finalized, Willamette’s law school started its own separate disciplinary process using its Honor Code Committee — which ultimately resulted in Li’s dismissal.

The Honor Code Committee is made up of five members who are appointed by the law school dean each year — three full-time faculty members chosen by the dean and two student members nominated by the Student Bar Association.

The committee is charged with gathering evidence related to alleged violations of the law school’s Honor Code, holding a hearing based on that evidence and making disciplinary decisions based on its findings — up to and including expulsion.

The committee began its inquiry into Li in October, with the university’s student affairs division already investigating, and Li already barred from campus.

Melodye MacAlpine, associate dean of student affairs and administration at the law school, turned over more than 40 pages of notes, emails and screenshots to the Honor Code Committee on Oct. 7 for that inquiry.

In those documents provided to the committee, MacAlpine notes that she and others at the university had concerns about how Li interacted with people, alleging she communicated in ways that were combative, disrespectful and not entirely honest.

In her notes, MacAlpine accuses Li of seeming to “escalate when her current narrative stops getting as much attention as it had previously.”

MacAlpine wrote that one example of “escalating rhetoric” was Li stating she had been discriminated against because she was a student with disabilities, then because she was a student of color, and also because she’s an international student whose first language isn’t English.

“The question here is not about her identities, but how she invokes them to seemingly get a specific reaction or response from others,” MacAlpine wrote in her notes.

Doubts about Li’s credibility raised by Willamette administrators extended to Li’s medical conditions as well, even though she had requested accommodations and used medical equipment last fall that teachers and classmates could clearly see — such as her chest port, blood pressure monitor and nasal feeding tube.

In one instance, in her third week of classes, Li was called on to answer a question in a class and did not respond. She says she was starting to pass out due to her cardiovascular conditions, so she quickly packed up her things, left class and rushed to the emergency room.

MacAlpine writes in her notes that she heard from “a couple of sources” that Li was embarrassed she couldn’t answer the question and left class. Then MacAlpine wrote that Li talked with someone in the hallway for 10 or 15 minutes.

“[S]he first said that she was about to pass out in class, then she said she had to rush to the emergency room, then she said she was admitted to the hospital, then she said her heart stopped for one minute, and as recently as yesterday she was saying that her doctors were talking to her about palliative care,” MacAlpine wrote. “The serious nature of her stated medical status doesn’t seem to align with her current behavior.”

Li acknowledged she had a brief conversation in the hall before going to the hospital. According to an after-visit summary provided to OPB, the diagnosis for the ER visit was “syncope” — loss of consciousness, or fainting, due to falling blood pressure. Li also provided OPB with the palliative care referral she received from a doctor.


Request for accommodations leads to conflict with administrators

MacAlpine wrote in her notes that Li was disrespectful and combative not only to her but also to Willamette’s director of Accessible Education Services, Sue Minder.

According to MacAlpine’s notes, Li told her she felt Minder was not qualified for her job.

Li told OPB that she faced a difficult process for receiving appropriate accommodations for her medical conditions, which she’s entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Li felt Minder suspected her of taking advantage of the system when she initially discussed accommodations such as sometimes being late to class, or needing extra time on assignments, due to doctors’ appointments and occasional travel to different hospitals and clinics.

“The first thing that this director of the disability center told me — ‘Oh, you cannot just abuse your accommodations,’” Li said Minder told her.

In her time as an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, Li said the support she received for her medical conditions was a stark difference from Willamette.

“At U of O they have a really good system with their disability office,” Li said of the far larger public university she attended previously. “They have advisors advocating for students, and they have a lot of people. … They have their own website that you can request exam accommodations and things like that.”

An Oregon attorney familiar with higher education disability cases, speaking on background because they haven’t studied Li’s situation, attested that university disability resource centers should have employees who act as advocates for students. Li did not feel that was happening for her. She felt she had to prove her disabilities to Willamette.

Facing multiple investigations, Li briefly hired an attorney, Marcus Vejar, to help her.

In a written response to Willamette, Vejar affirmed a conversation took place between Li and MacAlpine about Minder’s approach to her job, but he characterized the discussion differently.

“Ms. Li provided information stating that she had concerns about how disability accommodations were being processed by the University, which was a sentiment present for multiple students, and not just Ms. Li,” Vejar wrote. “The only statement identified by Ms. Li as combative related to her statement that if Ms. Minder was unwilling to help disabled students receive accommodations, she should not be in the position.”

Vejar stressed that Li told those concerns to MacAlpine out of concern for herself and other students who could be dealing with the same difficulties.

“Ms. Li is being dismissed on the notion that her issues with the University’s disability accommodation process made her uncooperative and combative, despite Ms. Li attempting to communicate a common frustration of other similarly situated students,” Vejar wrote.

OPB reached out to another law student whom Li says had similar difficulties receiving accommodations at Willamette but did not get a response.

OPB asked Willamette about Li’s worries that she was not the only one experiencing suspicion, rather than support, in attempting to receive accommodations. The university responded by laying out its legal responsibility of offering accommodations as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school did not mention any specific supports or services it provides for students who are facing challenges with that process.

“Our priority is to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to pursue their academics, by implementing accommodations that achieve equitable access,” Willamette told OPB in a statement through its PR firm.

Li did receive an official accommodation letter, generally granting Li what she had earlier discussed with Minder. But it was dated for October. By then, she had already been suspended from campus by the initial university investigation and was under investigation by the law school.

MacAlpine’s notes show that she and at least one other staff member at Willamette emailed Li and her medical team to discuss reducing Li’s course load for the rest of the semester. But Li was not allowed to return after she was initially barred from class.

Dismissal cites disrespect, lack of candor, abuse of social media

An Honor Code Committee hearing on Nov. 16 resulted in Li’s ultimate dismissal.

According to the law school’s honor code, the committee’s hearings somewhat resemble those in a court of law, though with several key differences.

The defendant, in this case, Li does not get the chance to cross-examine their accuser. Li and her attorney were allowed to attend, but questions have to be submitted in writing to the Honor Code Committee chair, who then has the discretion to ask them depending on “relevancy and propriety.”

Li said some of the questions her attorney submitted to the committee were either changed or not addressed.

Near the end of honor code hearings, before the committee deliberates, the student is allowed to respond to the allegations against them and present other information to the committee.

Li said she was “not allowed to say anything until the very last five minutes.”

The committee — resembling a jury — can reach a non-unanimous verdict, including for the highest penalty of dismissal. It’s unclear if the committee’s decision to expel Li was unanimous or not. The findings from the committee only state a “supermajority” found she violated the school’s honor code.

Li said she was unable to get any recordings of the hearing when requested through her attorney. Willamette did not comment on the hearing to OPB, citing student privacy concerns.

In the letter of the committee’s findings, the committee stated that Li had “engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and disruptive behavior in the classroom.”

However, according to documents from the honor code committee, only the alleged threat was a classroom disruption. Other incidents occurred in discussions with faculty or administrators.

In addition to the alleged threat Li made against her classmate, the committee cited “combative” conversations MacAlpine documented involving herself, Li and other staff and faculty members at Willamette.

The committee also said in its written decision that Li showed a “lack of candor” during the hearing and that she had abused social media in a way that raised concern about her “regard for the rights, safety and welfare of others.”

Screenshots of Li’s social media posts included in MacAlpine’s report sent to the Honor Code Committee are from Li’s private Facebook page. Li’s posts mention a “law school bully” and her frustration with the school, but they do not mention Willamette, nor name any students directly.

Although Li made her posts on personal and private pages, Willamette told OPB that “students are expected to act within the university’s code of conduct on campus, off campus and on social media.”

Li’s lawyer at the time, Vejar, appealed the Honor Code Committee’s decision in November. Vejar wrote that the committee’s dismissal decision was “disproportional” to Li’s alleged conduct.

The law school’s Student Honor Code, included in its student handbook, does not describe what sorts of specific violations should lead to dismissal, only that sanctions imposed should have “a reasonable and proportionate relationship to the gravity of the offense,” and take into account the student’s disciplinary history and “character and fitness issues.” At the same time, the law school’s expectations are arguably higher than a typical graduate program, as they “mirror the expectations of professional conduct outlined by the Oregon State Bar Association,” according to Willamette.

The college of law’s student handbook says because of its “higher standards” for its students, the law school may give out “stricter penalties for misconduct.”

At the end of January, the law school’s dean upheld Li’s dismissal.

In the letter of the law school’s final decision on Li’s dismissal, the Honor Code Committee said that allowing Li to return would “represent an unacceptable risk to the safety” of the campus community.

“If by spelling out the truth, advocating for myself … is endangering to the community, they should be shamed that they’re a law school,” Li said.

The Honor Code Committee stated that if it gave Li a lesser sanction that would show a “tolerance for a type of threatening behavior.” Based on records of the Honor Code Committee process provided to OPB by Li, the main instances of “threatening behavior” are the threat Li allegedly made against a classmate and the frustrations Li voiced on social media.

The committee had also found that Li had a “lack of candor, remorse and failure to accept responsibility” for her actions, which it cited as further support for dismissal rather than for a lesser sanction.

In interviews with OPB, Li didn’t express remorse for the conflicts at Willamette. She feels she was advocating for herself.

“If I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t get my seat back. If I didn’t say anything, I would be continued to be bullied by the other [student]. And if I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t even get my accommodations, and so like, I don’t think I could have done anything differently,” she said.

Willamette declined to comment directly on Li’s situation.

“Willamette faculty and staff are committed to the full access and inclusion of all students with disabilities in our programs, and it does not factor a student’s request for an accommodation or their disability status in a decision relating to their dismissal,” the university said.

OPB asked Willamette how many students Willamette’s law school has dismissed in recent years through the Honor Code Committee process as well as how many times student appeals on committee decisions have been successful. The school declined to answer, responding in writing to OPB that those details could potentially reveal confidential student information.

Li’s medical condition, visa status mean uncertain future

It has been roughly three months since the termination of her student visa and Li is unsure what will happen next. Records from the university say Li violated the honor code and was a threat to the campus community.

It has been roughly three months since the termination of her student visa and Li is unsure what will happen next. Records from the university say Li violated the honor code and was a threat to the campus community.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Li is unsure what will happen next.

She said she was told by an international student advisor at Willamette that she has a grace period after the termination of her student visa to leave the country. It’s been roughly three months now.

Li said if she is forced to go back to her home country, she won’t have access to the team of doctors she’s been working with in the United States, and she does not think she will get the same level of medical care.

“I’m running out of my medical supplies. I don’t know what is going to happen,” Li said. “I cannot get into any other schools with this kind of record there.

“I’m not seeking for pity or attention. All I want to achieve is justice because I cannot be punished for something I have never done.”

Li said her medical conditions have been weighing on her, but she continues receiving support from friends both in-person and over the internet.

Li has found a lot of support online, including a video she posted on TikTok about her dismissal from school which garnered more than two million views. The video does not mention Willamette by name, though some who have commented have identified the school as Willamette. It hasn’t all been positive attention, though. Li has also received negative comments on TikTok as well, from people doubting her medical conditions and questioning her accounts of what happened at the law school.

Li said she wants to sue Willamette.

According to a local attorney familiar with postsecondary disability lawsuits, college students with disabilities have fewer legal protections than K-12 students. Still, higher education is covered by the civil rights protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Ultimately, there must be a guarantee that someone with a disability has an equal opportunity to succeed at an institution as someone without a disability, the attorney said.

Li said whether she can actually sue the university depends on if she has the money to do so.

“I’m going to spend a ton to pursue a lawsuit, but I just can’t let this be,” Li said.

Li said after being dismissed from Willamette, she won’t be able to get into another law school, so she hopes a lawsuit could result in clearing her name. And her ultimate goal hasn’t changed since that scholarship dinner last summer.

“I’m disabled, but it doesn’t mean I could never be a good attorney,” Li said.

“I still think that I could be a really badass attorney.”