In UF flap over academic freedom, professors mock new task force

A panel initially seen as a good faith gesture by the university is instead a “cynical tactic” to avoid bad press, the faculty members said.
In a letter Friday addressed to the president of the University of Florida, three political science professors wrote that they had "grave concerns" about the integrity of the recently formed task force.
In a letter Friday addressed to the president of the University of Florida, three political science professors wrote that they had "grave concerns" about the integrity of the recently formed task force. [ Google Maps ]
Published Nov. 12, 2021|Updated Nov. 12, 2021

In a letter Friday to University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, three professors at the center of a controversy over academic freedom expressed “grave concerns” over a new task force to deal with the issue, calling it a “cynical tactic” aimed at damage control.

The letter came on the morning of the panel’s second meeting. The professors also said they planned to see Fuchs in court.

The university had previously claimed it was not in UF’s best interests for the professors to testify against the state in a lawsuit over Florida’s new voting laws. After facing swift backlash, Fuchs last week walked back a decision to prohibit Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith from participating in the case. He also announced that a task force would investigate the UF conflict of interest policies that led to the initial decision.

But in their letter, the three political science professors wrote that, while they initially hoped the task force would be a “good faith” effort to reach a resolution outside of court, they came to see it as something of a sham.

“First, assigning this issue to a ‘task force’ of your choosing appears simply to be a cynical tactic to defuse press attention and stem the reputational damage that resulted when the University imposed a prior restraint on, and sought to discriminate based on viewpoint among, the speech of its faculty members,” they wrote. “The ‘task force’ concept appears to have originated not with the faculty itself, but with the administration’s government relations and public relations team.”

Earlier this week, UF’s faculty union urged outside academic organizations to conduct an investigation and the faculty senate introduced a resolution calling for similar action. The American Association of University Professors said it had not ruled out the possibility, and the American Association of Universities said it would not investigate internal policies of member universities. The University of Florida is the association’s only member in the state.

The professors also expressed concerns over the composition of the task force, which they said reflected its “illegitimacy and inadequacy.” No faculty from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are included, and two members, they wrote, were involved with developing and executing the existing policies.

“Neither can fairly or objectively judge the permissibility or constitutionality of their own actions,” the letter said.

Additionally, the professors said, the scope of the task force was too narrow in focusing only on the policy as it applied to professors serving as expert witnesses.

“The present moment provides the University with an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to academic freedom,” they wrote. “This is a crisis of academic sovereignty. We respectfully submit that the best qualified experts to fix this problem are those who had no hand in its development, implementation, or administration. It is unfortunate that this matter will have to be adjudicated in a court of law and not between peers.”

The professors filed a lawsuit in the matter last Friday, listing Fuchs, UF provost Joseph Glover and the university’s board of trustees as defendants.

The university’s task force will meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, Monday and Tuesday the week after and on Nov. 29, when a report is due to Fuchs.

University spokesperson Steve Orlando said neither Fuchs nor Glover would be giving interviews on the subject.

At Friday’s task force meeting, chaired by Glover, members parsed through litigation related to whether state employees had the right to speak out against the state’s interests. Glover asked members if they preferred to frame the scope of their work around First Amendment rights as opposed to expert witness testimony and academic freedom.

The task force will begin drafting policy suggestions next week.