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UF faculty union calls for boycotts over academic freedom

Leaders urge University of Florida donors to withhold money and ask artists to stay away until problems are addressed.
Century Tower is at the center of campus at the University of Florida, where academic freedom has been a hot topic in recent days.
Century Tower is at the center of campus at the University of Florida, where academic freedom has been a hot topic in recent days.
Published Nov. 5, 2021|Updated Nov. 5, 2021

Faculty union leaders at the University of Florida called on donors Friday to withhold their contributions until the school takes steps to assert its independence from state politicians.

They urged the university to allow professors to serve as paid experts in lawsuits that challenge state policies, to affirm its support for academic freedom and voting rights, and to declare that its mission to serve the public good trumps politics.

Until those measures are taken, they asked that college presidents and provosts around the nation downgrade their assessment of UF’s reputation when U.S. News & World Report surveys them for its annual rankings. They also asked artists, scholars and intellectuals to decline invitations to the university.

Related: UF restricted five more professors in cases against the state

About an hour after the news conference ended, UF president Kent Fuchs emailed the campus community with news of a reversal: He said he had asked the university’s Conflicts of Interest office to approve the requests of three UF professors to serve as paid witnesses in a lawsuit challenging the state’s new restrictions on voting.

Fuchs also named members of a task force announced this week that will investigate the school’s conflict of interest policy. The task force will be led by university provost Joseph Glover.

The union’s requests came during a virtual news conference by United Faculty of Florida and its UF chapter. It was held after a string of revelations about recent university decisions that, to many on campus, appear to be aimed at helping the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“This is really a crisis moment in our republic,” said Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s faculty union. “Academic freedom is really under assault, not only here but across the nation, and we’ve got to do something right now to turn the tide on this.... These are steps we do not take lightly.”

Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s faculty union, speaks during a virtual news conference Friday.
Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s faculty union, speaks during a virtual news conference Friday. [ Zoom. ]

Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide union, said UF’s decision to bar three professors from being paid experts in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting laws is the latest in a series of attacks on higher education.

“It’s part of a broader pattern to control and even eliminate certain types of speech on Florida’s higher education campuses and to muzzle the truth all together,” he said.

United Faculty of Florida president Andrew Gothard, speaking at the virtual news conference, cited "a broader pattern" of incidents at UF that have eroded academic freedom.
United Faculty of Florida president Andrew Gothard, speaking at the virtual news conference, cited "a broader pattern" of incidents at UF that have eroded academic freedom. [ Zoom. ]
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A major source of the attacks, he said, is House Bill 233, the “intellectual diversity” bill that passed during the last legislative session. The bill, he said, opens the door to persecution of those who hold opposing viewpoints from the ruling party.

Gothard said state Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and state Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, have filed versions of an “intellectual freedom” bill in the House and Senate that seek to repeal provisions in the “intellectual diversity” bill.

Related: Proposal would weaken protections for tenured faculty at Florida universities

Ortiz said the history of the union’s formation was based on protecting professors from political attacks: those spoke out on race, sexuality or differing political beliefs in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“Maybe we’re here at this moment because we did take academic freedom for granted and kind of let things slide and slide and slide,” Ortiz said. “But now we’re putting a stop to that.”

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