‘Get in that classroom; hope you don’t die’: UM faculty raise concerns over return to campus

UM faculty are using social media to make their case to teach from home. Several shared a meme made by an anonymous professor featuring the title of a famous Prince song, "I Would Die 4 U" to show their feelings about UM's demand that teachers return to the classrooms this fall. Photo credit: Facebook
By Anna Timmons

The University of Miami Faculty Senate is meeting with President Julio Frenk Thursday, July 23, to press the case of faculty who want the option to teach from home when classes resume in less than a month.

Armed with a petition signed by 535 faculty and graduate students, the senators who represent UM’s 3,226 full-time and part-time faculty will air faculty grievances that they have been excluded from the decision-making process regarding their own well-being and the operation of their classes.

“We know that many faculty and graduate student instructors are fearful of what a reopening and face-to-face teaching may bring,” said Scot Evans, an associate professor in the School of Education and faculty senator who helped put together the petition. He and other supporters of the petition assert that faculty should make their own choices on what is best for their courses and their health for the upcoming semester.

“The premise behind the petition is that faculty have the most knowledge about how to best deliver their own courses,” Evans said.

After a meeting between the university administration and the College of Arts and Sciences on July 22, one faculty source confirmed that the university appears to hold firm on its decision to provide remote options only to those with proven health conditions.

Martin Nesvig, a professor in the history department, said the university is not prioritizing the broader health of the faculty in its return plan, a sentiment shared among petition signers.

“It’s unconscionable that UM’s higher administration is basically telling the faculty, ‘Get in that classroom; hope you don’t die,’” Nesvig said.

Jeffrey Duerk, UM’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, maintained that both the safety of faculty and students this fall as well as the quality of education at UM are a priority for the university.

“The University of Miami remains committed to everyone’s safety and well-being, and to our educational mission and our pledge to provide our students with the best possible educational experience,” Duerk said in a July 22 statement to The Miami Hurricane. “This is our professional responsibility, and one that we will fulfill as a team as we look forward to a safe and successful academic year.”

Colleges and universities across America are faced with the task of finding ways to both avoid further financial downfalls this year, while also creating an environment where students can learn effectively and safely. However, few universities are located in areas where the coronavirus numbers are as high as South Florida’s.

While UM students are being given the opportunity to opt into fully remote classes for the fall semester, faculty and instructors are being told they will have no say regarding their return to campus unless they are able to disclose pre-existing medical conditions that pose a risk, which many faculty found inappropriate for UM to request.

With 92,345 cases in Miami-Dade and nearly 380,000 statewide as of July 22, faculty and staff at the university are questioning whether UM’s plan to return to in-person teaching on campus on Aug. 17 makes sense right now. Two other local peer institutions, Miami Dade College and Florida International University, have announced that they will be operating remotely until further notice. UM reaffirmed its intent to resume classes on campus in a message from Frenk on July 21.

Here is a look at what other South Florida schools are doing.

The petition asserts that this decision should not be forced upon faculty members who don’t feel comfortable being in classrooms with students.

“We believe that the individual and public health risks posed by COVID-19, especially in the South Florida area, are too high at this time to justify a general return to in-person teaching,” the petition reads.

Faculty members want to be included in decision making for fall semester

When filling out a request for remote teaching accommodations, one Ph.D. candidate at UM, who teaches classes each semester, said she didn’t feel comfortable returning to teach in person this fall because of the continued surge in coronavirus cases in South Florida.

The form she and many of her colleagues filled out asked in-depth health questions, requiring faculty to disclose personal information about their pre-existing medical conditions as proof that they had a valid medical reason for carrying out the upcoming semester remotely.

Having no underlying conditions, the Ph.D. candidate, who requested anonymity to protect her position at UM, was informed July 18 that her request had been denied. If she wanted to continue her program at the university, she was going to have to return to campus despite her discomfort, she said.

“I felt unheard,” she said.

Provost Duerk said all requests were reviewed by the Office of Faculty Affairs and decisions on how courses should be run were made by deans and department chairs.

“Oftentimes faculty members have then begun to determine how to deliver courses in order to best meet student learning outcomes and provide our students with a world-class University of Miami education,” Duerk said.

Multiple faculty members said they were told by the administration that even if they had children staying at home for distance learning, they would not be given accommodations for distance learning

“If you’re a single mom and you are a professor at UM, what are you supposed to do?” another professor challenged.

As president of UM’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that launched at the university in September and has since grown to almost 150 active members, Evans said the organization is advocating for professors to be involved in decisions that impact their teaching and research.

“Faculty want to be at the table when these decisions are made,” Evans said

John Funchion, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the English department at UM, also shared misgivings about the university administration’s communication during the pandemic, describing the tone of emails at times as “callous.”

Professors say hybrid teaching model may not be what’s best

Many professors are expressing concern over the educational model this fall, as they said they believe the mixed use of in-person, hybrid and entirely remote classes will make classroom time less effective for students and planning more burdensome for professors.

“Even the best teachers will struggle to teach well in three different modalities at the same time,” Funchion said.

A UM professor and member of AAUP who requested to remain anonymous said simultaneously attending to in-person students and those joining virtually would leave little instructional flexibility for her to facilitate group work or spark discussion. By running classes fully on Zoom, she said it is easier to have everyone working as one unit.

During the spring semester, which transitioned into a remote format as coronavirus cases first began to rise in Florida, students had mixed feelings about the quality of online learning, with many reporting that they found it much harder to learn and complete their classes away from campus.

However, given the pandemic, the professor said she feels remote learning is what is best for her classes right now.

“The university has consistently ignored pleas from faculty to make decisions that they believe are in the best educational interest of their students,” said the professor, who also helped organize and spread the petition. “The university is not treating us with the respect we deserve.”

Professors express worry over safety on campus amid surge in South Florida cases

The professor said she is worried for her own well-being this fall and believes that the university is downplaying the state of COVID-19 in South Florida.

“The university is not being honest with us or our students about the real risks of reopening and the calculations they’ve made to take those risks,” she said.

UM faculty are using social media to make their case to teach from home. Several shared a meme  featuring the title of a famous Prince song, "I Would Die 4 U" to show their feelings about UM&squot;s demand that teachers return to the classrooms this fall.
UM faculty are using social media to make their case to teach from home. Several shared a meme made by an anonymous professor featuring the title of a famous Prince song, “I Would Die 4 U” to show their feelings about UM’s demand that teachers return to the classrooms this fall. Photo credit: Facebook

Throughout the summer, UM has taken steps to ensure a safe return to campus for its students and employees, including mandatory facial coverings, increased cleaning, hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass around campus, among other provisions, Duerk said.

A message sent out to the UM community on July 21 from Frenk, honed in on the university’s strategy to find creative solutions to make an in-person return on campus possible despite Miami’s emergence as the new epicenter of the pandemic.

Frenk offered reassurance to those with concerns about the virus and presented the upcoming return as an opportunity to put UM’s mantra of “‘Canes Care for ‘Canes” to the test, stating that this return represents a chance to “rise and become the best versions of ourselves.”

However, several faculty members aren’t as hopeful about the safety and reality of what a return will look like this fall.

Evans said that while the university’s return plan seemed sensible when it was first announced in early May, cases of coronavirus in Miami have now taken a turn for the worse. At that time, many public health officials, including Frenk, stated that Florida had already seen its peak. But after the state began reopening in May and June, cases in Florida reached new heights, breaking national records for the most cases added in a single day on July 12.

With more than double the cases of any other county in Florida, Miami-Dade has become the epicenter of Florida’s coronavirus crisis.

“It calls into question how that original plan could still be the plan for the fall,” Evans said. “It’s pretty clear that things are only getting worse, and it is not going to get substantially better by the time that students arrive on campus.”

Professors question UM’s priorities amid plans to reopen

The anonymous professor who helped organize the petition shared discomfort about being in a classroom come August.

“I don’t like going to the grocery store,” she said. “I’m not sure I want to be in a room full of undergrads with no windows and circulating air.”

As shown in a video message sent by the university, several precautionary measures are being put in place inside classrooms, including plexiglass surrounding podiums to shield lecturers, 6-feet distancing between seating for students and the utilization of larger spaces such as the Watsco Center to allow for larger classes to continue safely.

Many professors and graduate students are speculating that the university is putting financial concerns above the well-being of its students and employees.

“If it were not for the money, this is not the ethical thing to do,” said one professor in the School of Education who requested anonymity. He said he’s been feeling tension between the cautious safety measures he has been taking in his own personal life during the pandemic and what the university is asking of him this fall. Sheltering in place, the professor said he has been staying at home except for a trip to the grocery store every few weeks. But, once school resumes, he said he will do what he has to do to keep his job.

“I’m a very cautious person. But at the end of the day, I need a job and I will do what I’m told to do,” he said.

With the financial strain the pandemic has placed on universities across the country, including UM, Evans said faculty and employees fear the possibility of more layoffs and furloughs if the university does not return in person this fall.

This past spring, the university began a series of furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts to offset the projection that the university could suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in financial losses this year. Evans said additional cuts are likely and could be more severe if UM does not return in person.

“Everyone is worried about job security and the very likely prospect of further layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions,” he said, adding that once again it will be the university’s lowest paid employees, such as subcontracted workers, staff, lecturers and adjuncts, who are placed in the most vulnerable positions.

Students divided on university’s plans to reopen

Student Government has not taken a position on whether a fully online semester would be the best course of action this fall. Student Government President Abigail Adeleke declined to comment on the faculty members’ plea to have a right to opt into remote learning.

But students who experienced this transition to remote learning in the spring stand on both sides of this debate.

Senior Grace Harrington, who had her study abroad program in Rome cut short as Italy became one of the first epicenters this spring, said that while she is worried about returning, she and her friends are counting down the days until they are back on campus.

“I think UM is making absolutely the right choice by opening,” Harrington said. “There is no one more I trust to handle a pandemic than Dr. Frenk.”

Harrington, a political science and religious studies double major, said she is excited to return to campus for her senior year and live in her own apartment in the newly constructed Lakeside Village, a residential housing project that she has been dreaming of living in since she first decided to commit to UM.

Other students said given the current situation in Florida, UM should be more cautious this fall.

Senior Sharon Moy, a finance and accounting double major, said that while she thinks UM’s safety precautions are thorough, she still does not believe UM should be reopening.

“I do not feel safe returning back to campus,” she said. “It feels much safer to be at home than in a hotspot of the crisis.” Moy, who is at home in New Jersey where cases are remaining stable, said she is opting for remote learning in the fall.

Professors suspect transition to remote learning may still be ahead

The anonymous professor who helped organize the petition said she thinks it is likely that Miami could reach emergency thresholds of COVID-19 during the fall, which may result in a rapid transition to remote learning as was experienced this past spring. This would diminish the quality of instruction, she said.

“I can deliver much better online teaching if I know that’s what I have to deliver,” she said. “If I have to suddenly change my whole syllabus, we lose a lot in that transition.”

Others say a remote semester may be unavoidable.

“Each day the administration is holding off on what I think may be an inevitable decision to go distance learning,” Funchion said. “It gives us less time to prepare our courses accordingly and students less time to prepare.”

Jesse Lieberman contributed to the reporting of this story. 

Anna Timmons, the editor-in-chief, can be reached at editor@themiamihurricane.com.

Jesse Lieberman, the news editor, can be reached at news@themiamihurricane.com.