At a mid-September news conference, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs and board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini shared a stage with Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls to celebrate the big news.
Florida’s flagship university had attained a long-coveted spot among the nation’s academic elite, tied with two other schools for No. 5 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of public universities.
Fuchs credited state leaders for the university’s ascent. But another big factor — accounting for 20 percent of its score — was UF’s “academic reputation” based on surveys sent to more than 4,700 academics around the nation over the previous two years.
Now, leaders of the university’s own faculty, joined by other voices in academia, are questioning that reputation after the school barred three of its professors from testifying for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting laws. A university dean told them their participation in the case could “pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida.”
The decision was the latest in a recent string of developments that have raised questions about the university’s independence from state political leaders, said Meera Sitharam, vice president of the university’s faculty union.
She cited the new law requiring Florida’s state universities to conduct surveys on their “intellectual diversity,” a pattern of universities giving in to state officials when it comes to COVID-19 protections, and the UF medical school’s fast-tracked hiring of DeSantis’ new surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, into a tenured position.
“Faculty altogether are displeased because of all of these interferences coming from the governor’s office and possibly legislators’ offices,” said Sitharam, a professor in UF’s Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering. “It’s affecting everything from masks … to whether an academic department is forced to hire somebody because it pleases the governor.”
Faculty Senate chairperson David Bloom, who also sits on UF’s board of trustees, said the university’s handling of these matters will be important for its stature.
“If we really are a Top 5 university, we need to be able to walk the walk,” he said. “Faculty need to be strong and able to do their jobs without influence of the state. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, universities are cauldrons of ideas. If we aren’t allowed to consider all views, whether it be conservative or liberal, that’s concerning for everyone.”
The UF Faculty Senate is launching committees to look into Ladapo’s hiring as well as issues of academic freedom, said Bloom, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the College of Medicine.
“We don’t currently have the data in hand, and the university has not been very forthcoming in terms of data,” he added.
Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, said the restrictions placed on the three UF professors were “completely inappropriate.” The organization issued a statement condemning the move “in the strongest possible terms.”
Public universities, Mulvey said, exist for the public good, and professors should be able to testify whatever the truth of their scholarship leads them to.
In documents produced as part of its accreditation process, UF states that “academic freedom is a central doctrine by which the faculty operate and it is embedded in the culture of the institution.” The university’s mission statement says that it has an “obligation to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.”
Said Mulvey: “I think the contradiction between what the University of Florida’s mission statement says and what they’re doing is extraordinary. What they’re doing is exactly the opposite. What they’re doing, presumably at the behest of the governor, is suppressing scholarship.”
The governor’s office has said DeSantis was not involved in the decision.
University administrators see it differently. The school followed its initial response with a statement meant to clarify its position, arguing that it did not stifle speech but merely denied the professors request “to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.” It said there was no prohibition against them testifying as unpaid witnesses, while not on university time.
In a message to the campus community Monday evening, Fuchs and provost Joseph Glover wrote that the university “stands firmly behind its commitment to uphold our most sacred right as Americans — the right to free speech — and to faculty members’ right to academic freedom.” They said UF had launched a task force to review the university’s conflict of interest policy, which states that any employee activity that “affects, or appears to affect, their professional judgement or obligations to the University” could be conflicts.
Sitharam, the faculty union vice president, said it’s a “dangerous conclusion” to believe that the professors’ testifying in the voting case is not in the best interest of the university.
“How could it possibly harm their employer?” she said. “They’re claiming they’re part of the executive branch … or they’re afraid they’ll be retaliated against by (the governor) cutting off the purse strings. That would be corruption, I’d say.”
On Friday, the statewide faculty union, United Faculty of Florida, sent a letter to Fuchs asking the university to walk back its stance.
“These assertions that the interests and mission of the university are somehow equivalent with those of the current executive branch of the State of Florida are indefensible,” the letter said. “They undermine the university’s adherence to principles of academic freedom and the constitutional rights of UF’s faculty, staff, and students. The University of Florida is not coextensive with the state’s executive branch.”
The bigger issue at play, Sitharam said, is not just UF’s autonomy but that of the state’s other 11 public universities.
The issue of state interference also came into focus after Ladapo received a tenured position in the UF College of Medicine shortly before DeSantis appointed him as the new surgeon general in September.
Emails between administrators at the college showed an urgency to hire the candidate, prompting faculty to question whether standard university procedures were properly followed.
At 5:17 a.m. on Sept. 3, via an email, Senior Vice President for UF Health David Nelson introduced Ladapo to the associate vice president of research and the deans of the College of Medicine and Public Health. He mentioned Ladapo was being considered for the surgeon general position and asked them to “expedite this communication.”
Nelson also mentioned that Fuchs, Glover and Hosseini, the board of trustees chair, were “all aware and very supportive.” Less than two hours later, meeting times were being coordinated and the College of Medicine dean Colleen Koch made their intentions clear: “future state of FL surgeon general-we can accommodate whatever he wants in terms of meeting times!”
Ten days later, Ladapo submitted his job application, records show.
The next day, Koch sent an email stating Nelson said an offer letter would need to be ready by the end of the day. By Sept. 17, Ladapo had signed the offer.
On Sept. 20, the university’s health communications chief sent the deans “a draft set of responses to anticipated media questions regarding Dr. Ladapo” with a follow-up saying the emphasis should be on “our commitment to public health, addressing health disparities etc.”
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Sept. 22, a UF spokesman, Ken Garcia, stated Ladapo’s hiring “represents a tremendous opportunity for UF — a top 5 public land-grant university featuring the Southeast’s premier academic health center, UF Health — to continue to positively impact public health policy and address health care disparities, an area in which he is eminently qualified to lead.”
More than half of the 196 pages the Times received after a public records request were redacted, citing university rules and state statutes relating to confidentiality and tenure.
Also requested was a cover sheet typically used in tenure proceedings that would have contained the faculty’s final vote on Ladapo’s status. The university did not provide one. In an email response to the Times asking if a faculty vote took place and what the vote count was, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said the information was confidential under university regulations governing tenure, promotion and personnel matters.
Paul Ortiz, president of the UF faculty union, said the recent developments are concerning, and something the union has long been sounding the alarm on.
Even when the governor doesn’t issue an order, problems arise in perception, said Ortiz, author of a book that has caught the attention of a Texas lawmaker concerned about the teaching of critical race theory. The lawmaker is asking the state to investigate the book.
“We’re going down a path of totalitarianism,” Ortiz said. “What’s happening increasingly in terms of faculty and administrators, I’m hearing people say, ‘What would Ron DeSantis say or what would Tallahassee say about this?’ instead of showing our students the best books and films and articles. … People begin to assimilate or internalize the state, and act as if the state is determining their behaviors.”
Ortiz said he worries about the reputation of the school as he writes his students recommendation letters and where they will be placed. But he added that he’s optimistic, and hopes UF reverts course before it causes “irreparable harm.”
Times Staff Writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.