Following pornographic bookmark incident, instructor says UM pushed him to resign

A student in John Peng Zhang's class captured a TikTok video which featured a pornographic bookmark tab on Zhang's computer screen on March 26. The TikTok video was later taken down. Photo credit: TikTok

A University of Miami lecturer, who was out of a job after a pornographic bookmark was spotted on his computer during a March 26 Zoom class session, says he was pressured by the university to resign.

While teaching a business analytics course, John Peng Zhang started his class by sharing his screen on Zoom, as he had done during all his previous online lectures. As he lectured, a bookmark on his computer was visible for the class to see. One student noticed the tab, which read “Busty college girls fu…,” and audibly pointed it out. The other students quickly took notice and one captured a TikTok video of the incident that garnered more than 800,000 views.

A student in John Peng Zhang's class captured a TikTok video which featured a pornographic bookmark tab on Zhang's computer screen on March 26. The TikTok video was later taken down.
A student in John Peng Zhang's class captured a TikTok video which featured a pornographic bookmark tab on Zhang's computer screen on March 26. The TikTok video was later taken down. Photo credit: iFunny

The eight-second video, which was posted on March 26, filmed Zhang as he taught a class, zoomed in on his face, then panned over to show the bookmark. Shortly after, the university carried out an investigation, and Zhang resigned from his post on April 1.

However, he claims the bookmark was not his and that he was pushed out of the position.

As Zhang watched his name and face spread across the internet, he said he kept a low profile to avoid being contacted. Zhang, who initially did not respond to requests for comment, has now decided to share his side of the story.

“I think a lot of people assume that I did it,” Zhang said of the incident. He spoke with a computer scientist about the root cause of the bookmark and said he is seeking pro-bono legal advice. A website once used to host his online classes has now been repurposed to state his innocence and request legal help. Zhang had been working for UM for less than a year at the time of the incident, and before this he worked at Florida International University.

Screenshot of Zhang's personal website.
The website for Zhang's business analytics class has been changed to reflect his assertion of innocence and states that he is seeking a lawyer. Photo credit: Jesse Lieberman

“I do not know how that bookmark ended up on my computer,” he said.

Following the incident, Zhang was instructed to apologize. Per the instructions of the administration, Zhang apologized during the following session on March 30. Once Zhang addressed the incident with his classes, he was told by the administration that his apology was “not acceptable…not sincere, not genuine and not heartfelt.”

Zhang said that later his apology was used by the administration as an admission of guilt to help force his resignation. The following day, he had been told to apologize again, but said he felt that another apology would have been more ammunition for the administration.

“I was advised to resign,” he said. Zhang said he considered staying at UM, but as pressure from the administration mounted, he eventually folded. “I feel like me resigning was easiest for the school, but not necessarily for me,” he said.

After The Miami Hurricane initially reported about Zhang losing his job on April 29th, UM in subsequent statements stressed that Zhang resigned and was not fired. The university declined to comment on the specifics of Zhang’s resignation, stating, “The University does not comment on personnel matters in detail for faculty, staff and students.”

“They knew what they were doing,” Zhang said. “They created a situation where I was forced to resign.”

Zhang said he was also frustrated with the services provided by UM in its transition to online. These services, if properly provided, could have helped prevent the incident, he said.

“I didn’t receive any training from the school about IT security,” he said. Zhang acknowledged training was provided by the university on how to use Blackboard Ultra and Zoom during the extended spring break, but he said none of it addressed potential security issues.

In response to questions from The Miami Hurricane about security training, the university replied with the following: “Training was included about the potential danger of file sharing through those features. File sharing is disabled by default…to date, we have heard of no UM cases of a virus being spread through Zoom, or through any application during COVID-19.”

Zhang said he feels if the university had provided professors with laptops equipped with the proper security software, the incident never would have happened.

“It could have all been avoided,” he said.

However, the university asserts that laptops were purchased and provided to any faculty member who needed one.

A response from the university stated: “These laptops were loaded with university software, including security software, and the drives were encrypted prior to being released to faculty.” Before his resignation Zhang emailed UM informing them he had not been provided with a laptop, unlike some of his colleagues.

Even without proof or hearing Zhang’s defense, there was a growing sentiment from some in the community that Zhang was treated unfairly.

“Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt,” said a former student of Zhang’s. The student said Zhang never did anything inappropriate in any of his classes.

As the news of Zhang’s departure spread throughout the community, one student who was not a member of Zhang’s class, said he felt Zhang was treated unfairly and started a petition asking for his reinstatement.

“For him to lose his job because of this is absolutely heartbreaking,” said Austin Torres, a recent UM graduate who majored in chemistry. Torres created the petition to reinstate Zhang with an initial goal of 200 signatures. In a week the petition received nearly 5,000 signatures. Torres said he was amazed by the response to the petition.

“It’s crazy how things gain momentum nowadays,” he said.

The petition asks for Zhang to be reinstated arguing, “People make mistakes,” and that everyone is “allowed to have a personal, sexual life” and a right to privacy. The comment section is filled with statements from signers vocalizing their support.

Torres said UM has not reached out to him about his petition. However, the university did confirm in a statement that reinstating Zhang will not be possible at this time: “Due to the impacts of the coronavirus, a hiring freeze has been instituted for faculty and staff positions.” No further comment about the petition was provided.

“It was an accident that could happen to any of us,” posted Jimmy Murphy, a signer of the petition. Murphy’s comment was the top-liked comment with 86 people liking it.

“The punishment seemed disproportionate to how morally culpable he was,” a UM professor said about Zhang losing his job. The professor, who works in the Herbert Business School, asked to be anonymous so he could speak candidly. The professor said faculty heard rumors about the incident, but they were never addressed by the administration. While he agreed that the punishment was too severe, the professor said he does not think a return will be realistic for Zhang.

“I don’t know that bringing him back to UM is necessarily practical or desirable,” he said.

Samantha Hill, a business law student who was in Zhang’s class, expressed discomfort with the idea of being in a lecture with Zhang again.

“I wouldn’t want to go to his office hours anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to turn on my camera because I don’t want him to look at me.”

Although Zhang has not been contacted by UM since he agreed to resign, he said he has heard from many students and others around UM supporting him.

“I really appreciate the support from the community,” he said.

Several students took umbrage with the lack of communication when Zhang was replaced. Faculty members understood these frustrations.

“The university had a duty to provide some guidance to students to the fact that their instructor was being changed,” the anonymous UM professor said. The students interviewed all agreed.

UM addressed these concerns in a statement on May 4: “The Miami Herbert Business School moved swiftly to address the situation and provide learning continuity to the class and minimize any disruption for students.” No further comments about student concerns were provided.

Multiple sources raised additional questions about his future employment.

“It’s going to be really hard for him to find future employment as a professor,” one of Zhang’s former students said.

The anonymous UM professor expressed similar concern.

“I think the tragic thing is that his career is going to be severely hurt by something that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person,” he said.

Anna Timmons contributed to the reporting of this story.