Faculty allege provost’s office is conducting classroom ‘spot checks’

Tension is mounting among some on-campus faculty who say the university has been conducting “spot checks” on their classrooms to ensure they are physically present at the assigned class time.

“As I understand it, the purpose of the checks, which supposedly have stopped, was to ensure that people were following the correct modality, so if they were supposed to do a hybrid class that they did not shift it all online,” professor Gina Maranto, co-director of the ecosystem science and policy department.

Professors complain that about 20 minutes into a class session someone quickly opens the classroom door, peers in and then immediately leaves without explanation.

“We had two faculty members who reported they have had spot checks…and they weren’t very happy about it,” said Maranto.

The faculty believes Provost Jeffrey Duerk reportedly ordered the spot checks.

Duerk has denied he conducted any spotchecks to monitor teachers, rather it was facilities and classroom management checking on all classrooms as they do during the beginning of each semester.

“At the start of every semester, our office of classroom management goes around making sure the AC is working right and the doors are working right,” said Duerk. “This particular semester, given the fact that we also had hand sanitizer systems, disinfecting stations and things like that as well as a plethora of new technologies in the classroom, we increased the presence of people doing classroom checks.”

Duerk explained the office of classroom management ultimately falls under the supervision of his office. Classroom management, he said, would report to the registrar’s office, who would then report back to his office.

Facilities and Operations told the Hurricane they are conducting their routine checks as they do each semester. They have increased the checks considering the semester’s new challenges.

“These checks are conducted as part of the routine review of spaces conducted by Facilities,” read an email from Facilities and Operations to The Hurricane. “Pre-COVID we did the same check process to review chair counts, marker availability and other routine maintenance needs. Effective this semester we have custom-tailored the program to this semester’s unique operating needs.”

Prior to the reopening of campus, 600 members of the University of Miami faculty signed a petition demanding a say in their course modality for the upcoming semester. The petition largely fell on deaf ears and faculty members continued to express their frustration. Therefore, many professors who did not have a medical exemption complained they are required to teach hybrid or in-person classes without much of a say. However, Duerk said the university administration worked closely with the Faculty Senate to ensure needs are being met to guarantee a safe semester for the faculty community.

“The university’s partner in shared governance is the faculty senate, and the faculty senate has been very engaged in participation, participating in all of the reopening committees and activities throughout the course of the summer and the start of the fall semester,” said Duerk.

After one professor received calls from multiple students over positive COVID tests, the professor, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not tenured, decided to transition the class online for a day out of an abundance of caution as he said he was not told exactly what safety protocol to follow. He explained the contact tracing team contacted him about following up with clear instructions, but he never heard from them again.

“The protocol for what exactly faculty should do was not clear at all at that point,” the anonymous professor told The Miami Hurricane. “I had to make a call because I teach class in the morning… Just for class tomorrow, I emailed the students, as a precaution, ‘we are going to go online.’ ”

Immediately thereafter, the professor was contacted over his classroom absence that previous morning.

“Class went fine, but then the next day, I actually got an email from the dean saying, ‘how are you? what happened? I heard you were not in person’ and I go ‘wow, ok, so somehow the dean knew that I had gone online,” the professor said. “I thought the dean was genuinely concerned that I had gotten sick. They wanted to know if I was ok, but the fact still remains that the dean knew immediately.”

There are plausible reasons for how the dean found out, but the professor said one thing stood out: during the first few weeks of classes, about 20 minutes into class, someone would open the door, pop their head in and leave.

“I have classes where about 15 or 20 minutes into class, someone will open the door and look in and I’ll be like ‘can I help you?’ and then they just leave, and it happened on more than one occasion,” said the professor. “This is 20 minutes into class— this isn’t a freshman that’s getting lost and thinks he is in his biology class. Occasionally, that happens the first couple of weeks, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then, it happened again and I thought okay that’s a little odd.”

Although the professor did not face any consequences, the professor said he felt as though the message is that course modality is not the decision for the faculty to make.

“I explained my rationale —’look no one on the contact tracing team called me and told me what to do and I had to teach in the morning, so I gotta make a call, and I used my best judgement,’” said the professor. “The dean told me basically that you don’t make these decisions, faculty don’t have that freedom.”

Professors expressed that they believe that there may be different intentions behind these alleged spot checks. Many reiterated they felt as though it was a means to monitor them, which could have broader implications.

“I find it very insulting, quite frankly,” said the professor. “We are these brilliant scholars, and we gotta go in person because the students need this enriched experience from our renowned, learned scholars, but then they can’t make many decisions about safety or what is ethical or moral. ‘No, no no we don’t trust them to do that’— that is sort of insulting.”

Yet, the provost contends facilities and classroom management were not monitoring professors; rather they were making sure the semester was beginning smoothly considering the new classroom configurations and technological challenges.

“The idea of the provost having time to go around and check on individual faculty members is absurd,” Duerk said. “Did we check on some reports that we had gotten from students and parents that faculty were not coming to campus? Yes we did, but it wasn’t to simply check on the faculty.” He maintained that they were also following up that social-distancing measures were still in place and sanitation utilities were working.

But, professor Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, the Marta S. Weeks Chair in Latin American Studies ​Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, says the first email acknowledged the “spot checks” ordered by the provost’s office. Then later, the deans claimed this was being done in order to maintain UM’s accreditations.

“Deans said it was accreditation issues, but I pushed back and said, ‘Look, the first email was very honest— it said it was spot checks from the provost,” said Martinez-San Miguel. “All these other explanations don’t pan out for me because we are complying with the contact hours. There are schools completely online, and there are no problems with accreditation, so that explanation didn’t make sense to me.”

The email also included a table with the class title, time, class number, classroom, the name of the professor and YES or NO indicating if the professor was present or absent.

“We received an email from the provost with a short list of Monday courses in which the faculty member was not present in the room at the indicated time. The provost has been conducting spot checks,” read the email, which Martinez-San Miguel says she received.

“They were very clear they needed a response to report back to the provost and other deans said this is their ‘marching orders,’” Martinez-San Miguel added. Other emails provided to The Miami Hurricane also explicitly referenced spot checks.

Duerk explained the data is collected for institutional analysis.

“Universities live and function well by using the data they have available, so yes, of course we have tables that show what instructors are in what classroom, what classrooms are being used at what time by what faculty for what course,” Duerk said in an interview. “Through the course of doing our spot-checks, when we are looking at things like the layout of the room ,whether we have to make changes to the IT, we do that typically in where the classroom is being used, so it’s important for us to use data in a responsible and reliable way.”

Upon receiving information regarding her faculty’s absences, Martinez-San Miguel asked if there have been complaints over a course’s modality, otherwise, she said she would not divulge any information about her professors, wanting to protect their right to academic freedom and respect the department’s policies, especially during this pandemic.

“I asked if there have been any complaints from students and parents about the class, and if there is no complaint, I refused to furnish the information,” said Martinez-San Miguel. “I said I am not going to check on my faculty— we never visit anybody’s class unless we announce ourselves first.”

As the department chair, Martinez-San Miguel told The Hurricane that she has yet to receive one complaint from students or parents about issues with their intended course modality. If that was the case, she says, she told her dean she would then take action and speak with the professor.

“I will do something if a student complains and says ‘this is not the teaching modality that I signed up for, and I am unhappy with this arrangement.’ Then I’ll reach out to the professor,” Martinez- San Miguel said. “We have received zero complaints, and they are saying parents and students are emailing directly to the provost. This would be the first semester that something like that happened.”

After many professors expressed their concerns and complained over the alleged spot checks, the University of Miami American Association of University Professors sent a letter to the provost on Aug. 28, demanding the classroom monitoring stop as the national AAUP calls it an infringement of basic academic freedom.

“We assert that all instructors have the right to conduct their classes without the fear of covert surveillance,” the letter reads, which the AAUP posted publicly online. “Such surveillance creates a workplace climate of anxiety and fear; we are already working under extremely difficult and stressful conditions. Faculty are attempting to be adaptive and responsive to student needs utilizing creative teaching approaches, while also keeping themselves, their students, and their families safe.”

The Faculty Senate also shared professor concerns over the alleged spot checks with the administration, but the provost still denied it was his office directly conducting the checks.

“It’s hard to say if it was a general concern or whether it’s just a few faculty concerns who heard a rumor and sort of accelerated on that or expanded it to something, but we work very closely with the Faculty Senate, Faculty Senate leadership and members of the Faculty Senate who serve on every committee associated with reopening of the fall semester,” Duerk said in an interview with The Hurricane.“The faculty senate is our partner for shared governance, and the AAUP is not.”

But, Martinez San-Miguel said many didn’t believe the classroom management or facilities excuses. Thus, some professors feel that the administration’s policing is motivated by the fact they want to keep the campus open for the entire semester. Student attendance, professors say, has gone down since Labor Day weekend.

“The goal is in-person and hybrid formatting so that we don’t lose more money, and that’s it because at this point…we are in too deep,” said an anonymous professor. “We have invested all this money, time, effort and resources in changing the classrooms, and so I think from an administrative perspective, we are going to make this happen no matter what. There are too many financial resources at stake.”

Faculty frustrations have mounted over the alleged spot checks and the way they say they were unilaterally informed about having to teach in-person. Many professors continued to express their commitment to their students, but they are also concerned over a perceived lack of trust between administration and faculty.

“Sending spot checks around seems to suggest they don’t trust their faculty,” Maranto said. “That’s really demoralizing…so many faculty worked around the clock over the summer not being paid to try and ensure we can get our classes online and teach them.”

It is unclear if the absent professors will face consequences. Still, many worry about how this information or data will impact their futures or their colleagues’ futures at the university.

“Many people throughout the university are contingent faculty and are hired just for a semester…they have no protections, and should the university decide that they are going to put a black mark against a person’s name…I can no longer hire that person,” said Maranto. “I find that highly problematic particularly in my program.”

For Maranto, it is the lack of transparency from the university that is particularly troubling.

“Down the line, it is unclear where this got recorded and what was done with it,” Maranto said.

The provost wants to reassure professors that there are not any ulterior motives behind the checks, just a means to confirm in-person classes have the proper safety measures in place to protect students and faculty. He also added this is an unprecedented academic year that carries necessary and unforeseen changes, ultimately expressing his gratitude for the faculty’s patience and understanding.

“There’s nothing sinister in my motives. I want this to be a great semester for our faculty as well, and for me to make sure that you are safe in the classroom and the promises we made to our faculty were being upheld as well,” Duerk told student media leaders during a media roundtable. “We promised them all those things—Plexiglas barriers, students wearing their masks and furniture having well-defined locations. We were checking on the classrooms as we always do and additional things that were unique to the COVID environment.”

Jesse Lieberman contributed to the reporting of this story.

Featured photo by Jared Lennon, photo editor.