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Education

UF trustees fire back at professors who criticized the school's free speech policy

A trio of students move under the arches of a sculpture nicknamed “The French Fries” on the University of Florida campus.
Courtesy: Kierra Hill
/
The iconic Century Tower stands in the middle of the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville on July 22, 2021.

The trustees' chairmen denied that the trustees played a role in the decision to prohibit the professors from participating in “outside activities” that would conflict with UF’s policies.

Calling the actions “disrespectful,” the University of Florida Board of Trustees on Friday united in a strongly worded rebuke of professors who criticized the school’s decision to block faculty members from testifying as expert witnesses in a high-profile voting rights lawsuit.

The state’s flagship university became embroiled in controversy after court documents revealed a decision by administrators to prevent three political-science professors from testifying against a new state elections law (SB 90), which included making changes to voting by mail. The measure was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature this spring and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The university ultimately walked back the decision, allowing political-science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith to be hired as expert witnesses by groups challenging the law, as long as they did the work on their own time and without using university resources.

But the controversy has continued, with the three professors and two others filing a federal lawsuit alleging violations of First Amendment rights.

During a meeting Friday, UF Board of Trustees chairman Mori Hosseini led the charge in sharply criticizing the professors and rallying around university President Kent Fuchs.

“The overwhelming majority of our faculty are here for the reason we are, to educate, research, serve the University of Florida as their employer,” Hosseini told the board. “However, we saw that some have taken advantage of their positions. I am speaking here of faculty members taking second jobs using the university’s state resources for their own personal gain. I am speaking about faculty members who use their position of authority to improperly advocate personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.”

A court document in the elections lawsuit said the university told the professors their request to serve as expert witnesses was denied because “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict” for the university.

Hosseini vehemently denied that the trustees, DeSantis or any other state leaders played a role in the decision to prohibit the professors from participating in “outside activities” that would conflict with UF’s policies.

Hosseini also defended the university’s conflicts-of-interest policy, which served as the basis for the initial decision to bar the professors from testifying. The university initiated a “conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest policy” in July 2020.

Amid the controversy, the university’s policy has become the subject of an investigation by a congressional subcommittee that raised concerns the school was “censoring its faculty” based on viewpoint.

“The catalyst for the policy change had everything to do with making sure federal, state and university resources are being used for their intended purpose, and not for purposes unrelated to the University of Florida or for personal gain,” Hosseini said.

Without naming the professors, and without promising any specific action, Hosseini warned of potential consequences.

“This will not stand. It must stop. And it will stop. If you allow something to happen,,that means you condone it. Enough. Let me tell you, our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither is this board. And we shouldn’t,” the trustees’ chairman said.

After the controversy erupted, Fuchs convened a task force to provide recommendations. Last week, Fuchs approved a report from the task force that called for a "strong presumption" that faculty members will be allowed to serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits involving the state.

But attorneys for the professors blasted the task force’s work.

“We are disappointed but not surprised that a task force created as a public relations tool has returned with window-dressing recommendations,” attorneys David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly said in a statement last week. “The proposed changes address only the narrow issue of expert testimony, and even on that limited topic, they fail to cure the constitutional problem with the university’s conflict of interest policy.”

Other UF trustees backed Hosseini’s comments during the meeting Friday, suggesting that media coverage of the issue has been one-sided.

“It’s unfortunate that the recent extensive media coverage does not tell the complete story, and in part has served as a distraction,” trustee Rahul Patel said. “And given the extent of that media coverage I’m wondering if we should, in a more visible way, clear up the facts, demonstrating our commitment to academic freedom and reiterating that nobody on this board has in any way influenced any specific decisions around academic freedom.”

Patel said that “with the exception of a few, vocal minority faculty,” the board is “in sync” with the faculty and views supporting professors as a primary objective.

Thomas Kuntz, the board’s vice chairman, argued that Fuchs has been mischaracterized.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with him where the subject of the faculty isn’t discussed in a positive way --- what can we do for the faculty, what can we do to increase their compensation, what can we do to make sure we’re hiring the great faculty we need,” Kuntz said. “So, it bothers me when there’s criticism levied against our president from faculty that might insinuate there’s a lack of support for the faculty.”

Fuchs, who was present at Friday’s meeting, did not comment on the issue.