Faculty and students at the University of Florida are urging outside academic organizations to conduct an independent investigation into actions that have raised questions about the school’s commitment to academic freedom.
The calls come as the university is conducting its own investigation into the conflict of interest policies that led to the criticism.
The ongoing controversy came to a head Friday after UF president Kent Fuchs walked back an earlier decision to bar three political science professors from serving as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state’s new voting law. He also named a committee to investigate the policy that led to the earlier decision, and said the faculty members could participate in the voting case provided they did so on their own time and did not use university resources.
Later Friday, the professors sued the university anyway, saying their First Amendment rights had been violated and that the policies giving rise to the controversy were still in place.
But leaders of UF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter said Wednesday that those measures don’t go far enough.
They called on the American Association of Universities and the American Association of University Professors “or a comparable, independent body with no formal ties to the State of Florida,” to investigate the treatment of the three professors “as well as the university’s broader policies on both academic freedom and outside activities,” according to a statement by Paul Ortiz, president of the UF faculty union.
The American Association of Universities is an invitation-only group of 66 leading research universities in the United States. The state’s only member is UF.
The union also renewed calls they made last week for donors to withhold money from the university and for academic leaders around the nation to take recent events into account when they are surveyed for ranking purposes. They also added a call for accreditation agencies to revisit UF’s status.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the main regional accrediting body for 11 states in the South, had previously written a letter seeking information from the school. As of Friday, the university had not responded.
Kelly Benjamin, spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors, said the organization has not ruled out an investigation of UF. The association previously issued a statement condemning the university for violating the three professors’ academic freedom.
“Typically, the AAUP opens a case when we write an administration to convey the Association’s concerns regarding apparent departure from its recommended principles and standards,” Benjamin wrote. “Thus far, there has not yet been a case letter sent to the University of Florida to open a dialogue. That is not to say, there will not be in the future.”
Elizabeth Dale, a member of UF’s faculty union, said while Fuchs’ reversal was positive news, the university needed to go further.
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“We consider this a victory for our members, our union, and all faculty and students at the University of Florida, but our fight for academic freedom and free speech is far from over,” she said in the union’s news release.
“President Fuchs’ statement did not contain a broader affirmation of academic freedom and the newly announced task force members consisted almost exclusively of current or former University of Florida administrators who were responsible for violating the constitutional rights of faculty.”
The union and UF College Democrats said they plan a protest on campus Friday for students and faculty wishing to speak out on issues of academic freedom.