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University of Florida trustee chairman was a back-channel to DeSantis office over pandemic decision

Ron DeSantis speaking at the podium
Marta Lavandier
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AP
The chairman of the University of Florida board of trustees served as a liaison with the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis when administrators were considering temporarily moving some college classes online due to the pandemic, according to text messages.

Morteza "Mori" Hosseini has been under scrutiny over questions about his role and relationship with Gov. Ron DeSantis in politically tinged decisions affecting the school.

The chairman of the University of Florida board of trustees served as a liaison with the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis when administrators were considering temporarily moving some college classes online due to the pandemic, according to text messages.

Morteza "Mori" Hosseini, who was elected chairman in 2018, is already under scrutiny over questions about his role in politically tinged decisions affecting the school.

The newly disclosed texts showed the chairman communicating with the university's president, Kent Fuchs, the evening of Aug. 13 — as the delta variant was sweeping the U.S. They were discussing reports surfacing that at least some colleges on the main campus were preparing to move all their classes online for the first three weeks of the fall semester, which ends this week.

Fuchs, who has said previously in interviews that he does not have the authority to challenge decisions from the DeSantis administration, sent Hosseini a draft email he was preparing for faculty announcing there would be no move to online classes. "Could you let me know if you have any changes," Fuchs asked.

"Governor's office have this," wrote Hosseini, a wealthy developer who has been an adviser to DeSantis and a Republican loyalist. He attached an excerpt of an internal UF message raising the possibility of classes moving online for some colleges, including those for liberal arts, agriculture, engineering and business.

DeSantis, who has made resistance to online classes and mask and vaccine mandates part of his political ideology, was pushing hard at the time to keep public schools and businesses in Florida open. The state's flagship university moving classes online even temporarily would have been inconsistent.

hosseini_text_121321.jpg
Screenshot: Fresh Take Florida
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This text message from Aug. 13, 2021, shows the chairman of the University of Florida board of trustees, Morteza "Mori" Hosseini, communicating with the university's president, Kent Fuchs, about reports surfacing that at least some colleges on the main campus were preparing to move all their classes online for the first three weeks of the fall semester.

Days before the text exchange, DeSantis had issued an executive order banning mask mandates in primary and secondary schools. Courts subsequently upheld the order as lawful.

Fuchs said he was emailing students the following day: "No course will move even temporarily to online," Fuchs wrote.

Hosseini responded: "Please send me a copy so I can forward."

"Just emailed it," Fuchs said.

The texts – released in response to a request under Florida's public records law – provide a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into how senior university officials reacted under the pressure of discussions about how the school would work to keep students and others safe on campus during the pandemic.

Hosseini did not respond to phone messages and emails.

A UF spokeswoman, Hessy Fernandez, said it was common for the president to confer with the board chairman.

"From time to time, the board chair may elect to inform state officials of university developments," she said in a statement. She added that UF was following guidance from Florida's State University System about returning in the fall to pre-pandemic operations.

Until the start of the semester, the university — which has reported more positive cases since March 2020 than any other school in the U.S. — required students on campus to wear masks inside classrooms and be tested weekly. Afterward, students were encouraged but not required to wear masks in classrooms. Testing was mandatory for students taking in-person classes during the spring semester, but in fall they were to instead be tested only if they suspected they had been in contact with an infected person. The school's top epidemiologist, Dr. Michael Lauzardo, has openly but unsuccessfully urged mandatory vaccines for students and faculty.

In the weeks following the text exchange, the number of positive COVID-19 cases surged on Florida's campus as classes resumed Aug. 23. They peaked Aug. 30 with nearly 700 students and others infected during the period, then have declined steadily.

No students, faculty or staff died during that window of time, but the Faculty Senate last month passed an unusual measure — over Fuchs' objections — expressing no confidence in the administration's handling of the pandemic on campus. Fuchs had warned that the vote could bring consequences from the state’s capital.

After the text exchange, Fuchs emailed faculty at 9:10 p.m. He acknowledged there had been discussions about moving some courses online for the first three weeks of the semester but added: "The decision was made today that UF will not pursue that option, nor will any other university in the State University System."

Fuchs' email did not indicate whether the plan had been blocked by the governor's office, the board of governors who supervise all Florida's universities, UF's own trustees or university administrators themselves — or any combination.

The following day, as promised, an official email to students announced the same decision, just as ambiguously: "There have been discussions about moving some courses online for the first three weeks of the semester, and there have been notifications to that effect for some courses. Upon further review, the decision was made not to do that."

The president of the American Association of University Administrators, Dan L. King, said it wouldn't be unusual for political appointees on the board to communicate with the governor about the university's operations.

"It’s not unreasonable to expect that a board of trustees might serve as a conduit under those circumstances," said King, a former university administrator. "It's not a formal part of a role, but there's a number of places where more or less that kind of role would be in play, in no small reason because of the role of politics that plays into the role they're in."

There was no evidence that DeSantis directed the university against moving classes online. The governor's spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, did not dispute that Hosseini communicated messages between the university and the governor's office but said DeSantis wasn't involved in UF policymaking. She also noted that reporters had asked earlier that afternoon whether the governor’s office was aware of reports circulating on campus about moving some classes online.

"Governor DeSantis has been very clear in his stance against COVID mandates and lockdowns," she wrote in an email. "He has also stated consistently in public remarks that students should have access to in-person education and opportunities. The governor is not involved in UF's internal affairs, and he has confidence in the university's leadership."

The texts offered further evidence of Hosseini's close relationship with DeSantis amid sensitivities about political influence over the university's operations. Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed Hosseini to the board in 2016, and DeSantis renewed his term earlier this year.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is competing for the Democratic nomination to run against DeSantis next year, urged earlier this month that Hosseini be fired.

"Under his leadership, UF has fallen from a world-class learning institution to a school that censors its faculty — and the truth — to further the radical political agenda of the governor and his appointees on the UF Board of Trustees," Fried said in a statement.

The USA Today Network reported in October that Hosseini sent the resume for Florida's current surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, to the president of UF Health in a move that fast-tracked Ladapo's hiring process at the university. Ladapo, whose opinions on COVID-19 policies on masks and vaccines have made him divisive, is earning $437,000 as surgeon general and an associate UF professor.

Earlier this month, during a trustees meeting, Hosseini said he was not involved in UF's recent controversial decisions to block professors from testifying as paid expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against DeSantis, citing what it said would be a conflict of interest. The school overturned its decision under pressure.

"Neither I, any other member of this board, the governor, nor any legislator had any influence on specific decisions on outside activities and conflicts of interest. Period," Hosseini said.

The university charged about $13 to produce the newly disclosed texts. It has not turned over hundreds of pages of other files for which it charged $351 in mid-October to produce. Those records covered behind-the-scenes emails and other communications about the sudden decision to require all in-person classes and who might have been involved.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at  corbinbolies@freshtakeflorida.com.