University of Florida president backtracks following a firestorm related to academic freedom issues

By: - November 5, 2021 1:42 pm
University of Florida

University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Amid a firestorm over academic freedom at the University of Florida, President Kent Fuchs on Friday has asked UF’s Conflicts of Interest Office to reverse its denial of requests by UF faculty members to serve as expert witnesses against state government.

The decision came in a “Dear Campus Community” message that included information about a new task force to “review UF’s practice regarding requests for approval of outside activities involving potential conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment.”

U.S. News and World Report recently ranked UF among the Top 5 public universities in the nation.

Now, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, UF’s accrediting body, is investigating whether the university sufficiently protects academic freedom. This after news broke that administrators had blocked three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit challenging restrictions on access to the ballot that the Legislature approved last year.

In addition, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the three professors filed a federal lawsuit Friday in the Northern District of Florida, Gainesville Division, alleging their First Amendment rights were violated. The defendants are the University of Florida Board of Trustees, UF President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joseph Glover.

Since then, news organizations have reported squelching of other professors’ right to testify in court. The university reportedly told profs that their participation would pose a conflict of interest “because the school was a state institution.”

Additionally, the Tallahassee Democrat and Gainesville Sun have reported that UF fast tracked Joseph Ladapo’s hiring as a faculty member as Gov. Ron DeSantis prepared to hire him as state surgeon general, in which position Ladapo has questioned the utility of COVID vaccines and masking.

Fuchs’ announcement followed a press conference Friday morning where members of the United Faculty of Florida denounced university officials for its decision. Shortly after the conference, Fuchs told UF “to approve the requests regardless of personal compensation, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.” The reference was to witness fees the professors might earn.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor who is president of the union’s chapter at UF, told the Florida Phoenix that the university’s change of direction most likely was prompted by the massive backlash.

“Today’s announcement by Kent Fuchs is a response to intense pressure and concern expressed by faculty students, alumni, longtime donors, and many others,” he said in an email. “Above all, the UFF’s insistence in keeping the attention focused on the importance of academic freedom to the nation has played a major role in today’s decision.”

During the press conference earlier, Ortiz addressed the withholding of donations. “This is already happening because they are so outraged,” he said. “And I have talked to countless individuals. … Many people are already halting their donations until UF gets it right.”

Andrew Gothard, president of the faculty union, said in an email to the Phoenix that he has “seen a number of individuals posting on social media that they have withheld their donations.”

The union unveiled a list of demands for university officials during the virtual news conference, including noninterference in employees’ freedom of speech, opposing voter suppression in Florida, and declaring that the university’s mission to serve the public is not influenced by state officials.

The union also called for UF to issue a formal apology to the three political science professors denied participation in the litigation — Sharon Austin, Dan Smith, and Michael McDonald. And the group urged donors to withhold funds until UF complies with the demands.

President Fuchs said in Friday’s message that he’d developed the task force to recommend how the university should respond when employees request approval to serve as witnesses in lawsuits against the state of Florida. UF is part of the State University System of Florida.

“Public colleges and universities, funded by public dollars, exist to support the public good, and UFF will continue to do all that we can to ensure that no one — no individual, group, or party — hinders that good and thereby harms the public,” Gothard said during the press conference.

Note: This story has been updated to include information from the press conference and other background, including a federal lawsuit filed Friday.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.