UF administrators slam faculty over free speech controversy

As concerns about academic freedom at the University of Florida grow, with a petition signed by hundreds of faculty members, UF board members said on Friday the school had done nothing. poorly and expressed their displeasure with the reports and faculty members who spoke. outside.

Mori Hosseini, the chairman of the board, told a meeting in Gainesville that he wanted to “set the record straight”.

He criticized a “small number” of professors who, he said, had “used their position to defend personal and political views to the exclusion of others.” He and another board member lamented that the teachers’ union had encouraged UF donors to stop giving. He also spoke out against a department head who attempted on behalf of his faculty to evade the university’s COVID-related requirements to conduct in-person classes this fall.

“To that, I say enough,” Hosseini said. “This behavior is unacceptable. It’s disrespectful … It won’t hold up. It must stop and it will stop. If you allow something to happen, it means you excuse it. Let me tell you, our legislators will not stand the waste of state money and resources, and neither will this advice. And we shouldn’t.

His comments came in response to an ongoing controversy that began earlier this semester when three UF political science professors were barred from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over New Election Laws. Florida. After widespread condemnation of the move inside and outside the university, UF president Kent Fuchs said professors could participate in the prosecution, provided they do so during their free time and do not use university resources.

He also established a task force to study an academic policy that deals with conflicts of interest and outside activities of faculty members, which came into play with the three faculty members and which had been recently revised.

Hosseini said the policy was changed after the university learned that a small group of faculty members had abused their positions for personal gain. Some took off jobs during college time, he said.

The revisions required university approval of participation in outside activities. They have “nothing to do with the First Amendment or academic freedom,” Hosseini said. “On the contrary, we and the administration absolutely support our professors’ First Amendment rights and their academic freedom to teach, research, publish, and exercise their rights as citizens.”

Related: UF facing thorny – and old – questions about political interference

Hosseini also praised Florida House President Chris Sprowls, Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson, and Governor Ron DeSantis for their support of the university. He challenged the idea that UF’s decisions concerning the three professors were the result of political pressure.

“Our heads of state understand how important these things are and they have followed up on our requests,” Hosseini said. “Although the media has suggested that the governor played a role through this relationship with me in UF’s decisions on outside activities and conflicts of interest, let’s be clear: this is 100% false. Neither I nor any other member of this council, the governor, nor any legislator has had any influence on specific decisions of outside activities or conflict of interest. Period.”

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Other administrators echoed his sentiments, complaining about the reporting, praising Fuchs and complaining that the teachers were “working against” the school’s mission.

Rahul patel
Rahul patel [ University of Florida ]

Rahul Patel, an administrator who said he “agreed 100 percent” with Hosseini’s sentiments, suggested that the university publicly express support for their faculty and academic freedom. He called recent reporting on the controversy an “unfortunate distraction.”

“With the exception of a few minority vocal teachers, we are 100% in tune with our teachers,” he said.

As of Friday, more than 280 UF ​​professors signed a petition from a newly formed group, the Coalition for Academic Freedom at UF. The group is not affiliated with UF’s teachers’ union, but it supported the union’s recent demands, which included a call for university donors to stop giving and academics to avoid school. The coalition added nine demands, including asking the university to stop its efforts to end classes or change the names of classes that deal with race and other sensitive topics.

The latter was referring to a professor at UF College of Education who filed a grievance this week saying he had been told not to use the words “critic” and “race” in an online description of his specialization. The wording, he was told, came too close to the controversial subject of “critical race theory.”

While the coalition has been formed in recent weeks, many UF professors say the climate around academic freedom has been changing for much longer.

Nancy Dowd, a law professor and one of the coalition’s organizers, said things hadn’t always been that way in her 32 years at university.

When she was director of the Center on Children and Families, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, faculty members testified on behalf of children’s interests in state disputes. Their participation, she said, was based solely on research and scholarship.

Nancy Dowd
Nancy Dowd [ University of Florida ]

“We have not asked for permission to make this argument or to ask the administration to say, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we don’t know if this is such a good idea’,” he said. she declared. “The politics of our country and our state are deeply contested at this point. Things that were unthinkable are now being questioned. We are in a deeply divided moment.

Dowd said she began to feel a change during the tenure of former Governor Rick Scott, when, she said, the law school began to feel pressure to select a new dean. .

“The issues are not isolated incidents, but rather suggest broader and deeper issues that have not just arisen now,” said Dowd.

Clarence Gravlee, anthropology professor and coalition organizer, said recent legislation, including a bill to prevent “racist scapegoats” in educational institutions, has exacerbated the climate. Although he said he was not surprised to see this from politicians, he is shocked by the response from the UF administration.

“All of these actions are threats to fundamental democratic institutions,” Gravlee said. “If I told you the same facts and didn’t tell you where it was going, it would be scary and obvious that we are faced with authoritarianism. “

The university, he said, is cracking down on the kind of scholarship that would allow people to see these changes clearly. He finds threats to internal programs, such as asking the professor to avoid the “critical race”, more alarming.

Michelle Jacobs, a law professor and coalition organizer, said the law school has already lost two or three faculty candidates upon hiring due to recent issues.

“If you have restrictions on what they can say based on the research they’re doing, it does impact if they can get them researched, published and licensed,” she said. “This ability to restrict what we can say and do in class and with our students… where will it end?

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