Professor’s lectures ‘secretly recorded’ during conduct review

Academic says he has ‘never seen anything like it’ after being told that classroom cameras were being used without his knowledge

May 21, 2024
Source: iStock/Supersmario

Larry Chavis, who has taught in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school for 18 years, received a letter on 22 April from an associate dean revealing he was under review after the university “received some reports concerning class content and conduct within your class over the past few months”.

That was concerning by itself, Professor Chavis said, but there was something else in the letter that was worrying other faculty members as well. The associate dean, Christian T. Lundblad, told Professor Chavis that the review had begun prior to 22 April – using a camera in Professor Chavis’ classroom.

“We recorded and reviewed several of your class sessions on April 8th, 10th, 15th and 17th using the existing Panopto camera in the classroom,” Professor Lundblad writes. The company says its name derives from panoptic, defined by Merriam-Webster as “being or presenting a comprehensive or panoramic view,” although others have noted its ominous similarity to a panopticon, an 18th-century design for a prison where guards could constantly surveil the inmates.

Professor Chavis said these class cameras at Chapel Hill predated the Covid-19 pandemic, when colleges and universities nationwide invested in technology to offer remote education. The ubiquity of recording technology has previously raised worries among some faculty members about surveillance not just of themselves but their students, too.

Professor Lundblad, who did not provide an interview for this article, seemed to anticipate pushback over the secret recordings. He also indicated that Professor Chavis had not been the only professor secretly recorded. “Notice is not required to record classes, and we do record classes without notice in response to concerns raised by students,” he writes. “We wanted to let you know that we will continue recording your class as part of a formal review.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Professor Chavis told Inside Higher Ed of being secretly recorded. “Certainly not here or anywhere else.”

It’s not something that Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty at Chapel Hill, had heard of either. “There is a lot of faculty concern about classroom recording, and we will be discussing it with the provost at the Faculty Executive Committee meeting on Monday,” Dr Moracco said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. She noted it’s “not clear what our current institutional policies are about classroom recording.”

Dr Moracco said the concerns went beyond just “this particular incident.” Faculty members are wondering about other recordings being made “without the permission of the instructor and participants” – and about authorised recordings being “used for non-authorised purposes,” she said.

Chapel Hill officials didn’t provide interviews for this article, and spokespeople neither confirmed nor denied surreptitiously recording Professor Chavis or any other professor. “Regarding the general topic of filming classes, the university does not have a formal policy, but follows applicable laws,” the university’s media relations office wrote in an email.

Dr Moracco pointed out an apparent conflict with best practices that the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost recommended for the university as a whole. “Ensure recordings are only made available to the students enrolled in the classes recorded,” those best practices state. “A recorded classroom lecture should not be used for any purpose except to meet the educational objectives of that particular class. Should the department or instructor wish to use recordings for any other purpose, the department should contact the Office of University Counsel.”

Multiple lines in the IT policy for the Kenan-Flagler Business School, where Professor Chavis is clinical professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, appear to prohibit faculty members from being recorded without their consent. “Recordings are to be accessed and used only as directed by the faculty member(s) teaching the course” and “classes are only recorded with the expressed permission of faculty,” the policy says.

“I’ve never given them permission for this class to be recorded,” Professor Chavis said.

Sekou Bermiss, a Chapel Hill associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship who said he was friends with Chavis, said the secret recording has raised concerns for himself and others in the business school. “Faculty want more clarity,” Dr Bermiss said. When it comes to investigating professors, he said, they want to know what “is or is not on the table for administration”.

Professor Chavis posted the associate dean’s 22 April letter on LinkedIn, and he said the post attracted 65,000 views in two days. Some North Carolina media outlets followed up with stories. But Professor Chavis said no other faculty members have shared similar stories of being recorded, leaving him asking, “Is this something that has happened before?” or “Is this just a rule for Larry?”

Sensitive discussions

Professor Chavis said he does not shy away from teaching about controversial topics in his classes. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Professor Chavis said he taught about the stereotyping of other ethnicities in his international development classes this semester.

This is not the first time his teaching has raised objections from university officials, Professor Chavis said. In an email to administrators, he wrote that Professor Lundblad and another associate dean “called me into their office” last spring because “I announced in class that, in my opinion, wearing Native mascot sporting gear would violate the UNC Honor Code.” He wrote that “they asked me to ‘do them a favour’ so that the school would not get in trouble with ‘conservatives’”.

Regarding his class, Professor Chavis told Inside Higher Ed, “We’re talking about issues of race and inequality and income and gender, and I think in a way that’s very inclusive … but we do talk about sensitive issues.”

Recording all of that is “not something those students signed up for”, he said. The business school’s IT policy says “class recordings are distributed for the exclusive use of students” and that the policy “recognises the privacy rights of students who speak in class”.

Secret recordings could help universities investigate student complaints. Dr Bermiss, Professor Chavis’s colleague, said he would be in favour of allowing secret recordings if they’re about keeping students safe – and if there was a clear policy around it.

Chapel Hill media relations wrote in its email to Inside Higher Ed that “protecting the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression are among the most important responsibilities we share, in addition to assuring student success and well-being in the classroom.” But it remains unclear what the university is investigating Professor Chavis for, or how the probe relates to student success or well-being.

Professor Lundblad’s 22 April letter to Professor Chavis does not specify the allegations against him. After mentioning “reports concerning class content and conduct”, it says his classes had been recorded and reviewed “due to the nature of these concerns and our commitment to maintaining high standards of teaching and professional conduct”.

Professor Chavis provided Inside Higher Ed with an email exchange with university administrators in which he asks them, on the same day he received the letter, “Can you give me some idea of the allegations against me?” Professor Lundblad replies, “We will schedule a meeting with you to discuss the concerns reported to us.” But Professor Chavis said there has been no meeting.

“There seemed to be this real initial urgency,” to the letter, the professor told Inside Higher Ed. Now, he said, “the administration seems to be saying, ‘We’ll just let it ride.’ I’m really baffled.”

The university could lay off Professor Chavis without providing a reason: he said his clinical professor role is a non-tenure track teaching position, and his current contract expires on 30 June. He has not heard about any renewal, he said.

In his email exchange with the university leaders, Professor Chavis asked for a pause in the recording of his classes and in the use of existing recordings until there is more policy clarity. Chris Clemens, the provost, offered to have the review “conducted by a reviewer in the classroom” instead, and Professor Chavis said he preferred that. On the last day of Professor Chavis’ classes, 29 April, Dr Bermiss and someone from human resources sat in, Professor Chavis said.

“I don’t think there was any issue in the classes,” Dr Bermiss said of his observation. He said Professor Chavis is “someone who speaks from the heart and speaks about controversial topics”, but he still doesn’t know what prompted the review.

Professor Chavis has said the administration is probably concerned about him reading to his class an email exchange he had with his dean, Mary Margaret Frank, in which he talks about his contract recently being reduced to one year, about new assistant professors making more than he does and about “micro and macro aggressions I have faced here”, among other things. Dr Frank did not respond to requests for comment.

Professor Chavis said he wanted the students to learn, from a management perspective, that they might have to answer an email like his one day. He said he wanted them to see an example of how they should not respond to an employee.

Ultimately, Professor Chavis thinks that the university’s “heavy-handed” approach to the investigation is partly because he has spoken out frequently about a lack of diversity in the business school. “They’re definitely uncomfortable with my public outspokenness,” he said.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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