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Amid free speech concerns, UF declares it is ‘free from undue influence’

Faculty greet the message with skepticism, calling it “superficial.”
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs sent a message to the campus community addressing the recent controversy over academic freedom.
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs sent a message to the campus community addressing the recent controversy over academic freedom. [ Times (2017) ]
Published Nov. 24
Updated Nov. 24

University of Florida president Kent Fuchs moved to cool an ongoing controversy over academic freedom, telling the campus community just before the Thanksgiving break that recent decisions concerning outside activities by faculty were not based on “external” pressure.

In an email message late Tuesday, he referred to two reports. One was from a UF task force investigating the university’s policies on conflicts of interest and outside activities. The other contained UF’s seven-page response to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a major accrediting body that recently wrote the university with concerns.

Both reports were in response to a recent UF decision barring three political science professors from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over voting rights. The resulting backlash gave rise to allegations that the university was being influenced by Florida’s political leaders.

But the task force report attempted to put those charges to rest.

“The University of Florida Board of Trustees ensures that the institution is free from undue influence by external persons or bodies through clear and consistently enforced policies and procedures,” the report said. “The University of Florida also preserves and protects academic freedom and its concomitant responsibilities in regulation, operationalizes it in its bargaining agreement with the United Faculty of Florida, and its UFolio process for the approval of outside activities.”

The task force, chaired by provost Joseph Glover, recommended that the university “publicly affirm” academic freedom and free speech, clarify that comments to media are not considered outside activity and establish “a strong presumption that the university will approve faculty or staff requests to testify as expert witnesses, in their capacities as private citizens,” regardless of viewpoint. To deny such requests, the report said, the university would have to present in writing “clear and convincing evidence that establishes that such testimony would conflict with an important and particularized interest of the university.”

The task force also recommended creating an advisory committee to review approvals and denials and create an appeals process.

Fuchs thanked the task force in his email and said he would accept its recommendations. The school also issued a press release about the report it sent to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for educational institutions in 11 southern states.

The report affirmed “unequivocally” that the university “was not subject to external influence when making decisions related to denying some faculty members’ requests to testify as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party,” the release said.

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Some representing UF’s faculty greeted the responses with skepticism.

David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, lawyers for six professors who have filed a lawsuit against the university and joined in the call by faculty for an external investigation, issued a statement calling the report a public relations stunt.

“We are disappointed but not surprised that a task force created as a public relations tool has returned with window-dressing recommendations,” the statement said. “The proposed changes address only the narrow issue of expert testimony, and even on that limited topic, they fail to cure the constitutional problem with the University’s conflict of interest policy. That policy still allows the University to restrain the faculty’s free speech based on impermissible reasons and in the University’s discretion. We will continue to press the University to make the real change that the Constitution requires.”

Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter, said the scope of the task force was too narrow.

“We’re waiting for an independent review,” he said. “Self-reflection is always good. But this is like asking a student to grade their own final paper.... This appears to be a very superficial report.”