As concerns about academic freedom grow at the University of Florida, with a petition signed by hundreds of faculty members, members of the UF Board of Trustees said Friday that the school had done nothing wrong and were alarmed by news reports and faculty who spoke out.
Mori Hosseini, the board’s chairman, said at a meeting in Gainesville that he wanted to “make things right.”
He criticized a “small number” of faculty members who, in his words, “used their positions to advocate personal and political views to the exclusion of others.” He and another board member lamented that the faculty union had encouraged UF’s donors to stop giving. He also spoke against a department chair who, on behalf of his college, attempted to evade the university’s COVID-related requirements to hold in-person classes this fall.
“That’s why I say enough is enough,” Hosseini said. This behavior is unacceptable. It is disrespect….this will not hold. It must and will stop. If you allow something to happen, it means you are condoning it. Let me tell you, our legislators will not tolerate the waste of state money and resources, and this House will not. Nor should we.”
His comments came in response to the ongoing controversy that began earlier this semester when three political science professors at the University of Florida were barred from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over Florida’s new voting laws. After widespread condemnation of the move from both inside and outside the university, UF President Kent Fox said professors could participate in the lawsuit, provided they did so on their own time and not use university resources.
He also formed a working group to study the university’s policy dealing with conflicts of interest and the external activities of faculty members, which came into effect with the three professors and was recently revised.
Hosseini said the policy changed after the university learned that a small group of faculty had abused their positions for personal gain. He said some of them worked abroad while at university.
The reviews called for the university to agree to participate in outside activities. “They have nothing to do with the First Amendment or academic freedom,” Hosseini said. “On the contrary, we and the administration fully support the First Amendment rights of faculty and their academic freedom to teach, research, publish, and exercise their rights as citizens.”
Hosseini also praised Florida House Speaker Chris Sprouls, Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson, and Governor Ron DeSantis for their support of the university. He objected to the idea that the UF’s decisions regarding the three professors were the result of political pressure.
“The leaders of our country understand how important these things are, and they followed through when we asked,” Hosseini said. While the media has suggested that the Governor played some role through this relationship with me in the UF’s decisions about outside activities and conflicts of interest, let’s be clear: This is 100 percent wrong. Neither I nor any other member of this Council, the Governor, or any legislator has had any influence on specific decisions regarding outside activities or conflicts of interest. interval.”
Follow what’s happening at Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free newsletter
We’ll break down the state and local educational developments you need to know each Thursday.
You are all registered!
Want more of our free weekly newsletter in your inbox? Let’s get started.
Explore all your options
Other trustees echoed his sentiments, complaining about news reports, praising Fox and complaining that faculty were “working against” the school’s mission.
Rahul Patel, a trustee who said he “agrees 100 percent” with Hosseini’s feelings, suggested the university publicly express its support for faculty and academic freedom. He called recent news reports about the controversy an “unfortunate distraction.”
“With the exception of a few vocal minority faculty, we are 100 percent in sync with our faculty,” he said.
As of Friday, more than 280 UF faculty have signed a petition submitted by a newly formed group, the Alliance for Academic Freedom at UF. The group is not affiliated with the UF faculty union, but has supported the union’s recent demands, which included calling on university donors to stop giving and scholars to stay away from the school. The coalition has added nine demands of its own, including asking the university to halt efforts to end courses or change the names of courses that deal with race and other sensitive topics.
The latter was a reference to a UF College of Education professor who filed a complaint this week saying he was told not to use the words “monetary” and “race” in describing his major online. He was told that the formulation was too close to the controversial topic of “critical race theory”.
While the coalition has been formed in recent weeks, many UF faculty members say the climate surrounding academic freedom is changing for longer.
It wasn’t always this way during her 32 years at university, said Nancy Dodd, a law professor and one of the coalition’s organizers.
When she was director of the Center for Children and Families, prior to the US Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, faculty members testified in favor of children in state lawsuits. She said their participation was based solely on research and scholarship.
“We didn’t ask permission to make this argument or have the administration say, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we don’t know if that’s a good idea,'” she said. “Our country and our nation’s policies face profound challenges at this point. Things that would have been unimaginable are being challenged.” Now. We are in a deeply divided moment.”
Dodd said she first began feeling a shift during former Governor Rick Scott’s tenure, when, she said, the law school began feeling pressure about choosing a new dean.
“The issues are not isolated incidents but rather refer to broader and deeper issues that are not just emerging,” Dodd said.
Clarence Gravely, professor of anthropology and organizer of the coalition, said recent legislation, including a proposed bill to ban “racial scapegoats” in education settings, has worsened the climate. While he said he was not surprised to see this from politicians, he is upset by the UF’s response.
“All of these actions pose threats to core democratic institutions,” Gravley said. “If I told you the same set of facts, and I didn’t tell you where it happened, it would be terrifying and obvious that we were staring in the face of tyranny.”
He said the university is cracking down on the kind of scholarships that would allow people to see these changes clearly. He finds threats to internal curricula, such as the professor’s demand to avoid “critical race,” even more troubling.
Michelle Jacobs, a law professor and coalition organizer, said the law school has already lost two or three faculty candidates during recruitment due to recent problems.
“If you have limitations on what they can say based on the research they do, it affects if they can do, publish, and install the research,” she said. “This ability to constrain what we can say and do in class and with our students… Where does that end up?”