At UF, someone used ‘critical’ and ‘race’ in a sentence. Trouble ensued.

A professor’s complaint alleges that political pressures weigh heavily on decision-makers at Florida’s flagship university.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where questions continue to be raised about academic freedom and school's independence from political forces in Tallahassee.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where questions continue to be raised about academic freedom and school's independence from political forces in Tallahassee. [ University of Florida ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021|Updated Dec. 1, 2021

Chris Busey’s page on the University of Florida website says he’s an associate professor in the College of Education, “where he primarily teaches courses for the Critical Studies in Race, Ethnicity, and Culture specialization.”

But according to a grievance he filed this week through the faculty union, the wording of that job description has been called into question. The reason: fear on the part of top UF administrators that the words “critical” and “race” in proximity might offend the Florida Legislature. The specialization, which had been approved by the College of Education, was still awaiting approval from the university.

Busey alleges in the complaint that he was threatened with discipline if he used “critical race” in his curriculum and program design, an apparent reference to “critical race theory.” Discussion of the theory, an academic framework examining the impact of America’s racial history, was banned earlier this year in Florida’s K-12 classrooms after some parents complained and Gov. Ron DeSantis took up the issue as a frequent talking point.

Chris Busey, a faculty member in the University of Florida's College of Education, has filed a union grievance expressing concerns about academic freedom.
Chris Busey, a faculty member in the University of Florida's College of Education, has filed a union grievance expressing concerns about academic freedom. [ University of Florida ]

The document states that pressures have been mounting since the passage this year of House Bill 233, which requires the state’s public colleges and universities to measure the level of “intellectual diversity” on their campuses through surveys.

It also states that UF has held meetings discussing race in light of newer legislation seeking to prevent teachings on race that might make students feel uncomfortable. Two bills, HB 57 in the House and SB 242 in the Senate, have been filed ahead of the legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

In a statement, the university said grievances are confidential and it could not comment. But, in response to a copy of the grievance sent by the Tampa Bay Times, it said “the documents you provided contain a number of inaccuracies, and we will address them through the appropriate processes.” The university said it could not specify what was inaccurate.

Paul Ortiz, president of the faculty union, said the grievance was based on extensive notes from multiple people who attended recent meetings with university officials, and he believes them to be accurate.

The complaint states that, at a late September meeting between associate provost Chris Hass and faculty and administrators in the College of Education, faculty were warned to steer clear of curricula that touch on race or anti-racism.

Chris Hass, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs
Chris Hass, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs [ University of Florida ]

According to Busey’s notes from the meeting, Hass said the provost’s office was told that the College of Education was viewed favorably by the state and to “not raise any issues that might jeopardize this relationship.” The specific combination of the words “critical” and “race” were an issue.

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The complaint also alleges that Hass told them neither UF president Kent Fuchs nor UF provost Joseph Glover would be willing to risk their jobs if the college decided to “press the issue of anti-black racism and critical race curriculum.” It quoted Hass as saying Fuchs reports to the UF board of trustees and there had already been threats to replace university presidents in other state schools.

Richard Corcoran, the state education commissioner whose name was shortlisted as a candidate for the presidency at Florida State University, was brought up as a possible replacement, according to notes from the meeting.

Faculty members were told that students had been “weaponizing syllabi” by sending them to state legislators and that all courses that have the word “race” in the title were being examined, according to the grievance.

It said the college was advised that it had three options: Change the name of the concentration by removing the word “critical,” wait until spring before putting the concentration forward or not put the concentration or courses forward at all.

Busey asked at the meeting why the word “critical’' had become so significant and brought up that students studying this concentration have been hired at University of California, Berkeley.

“If we take out the word ‘critical’ it will just be a new word later,” his notes state. “The institutions who are ahead of us in the rankings have these programs.”

Hass responded that the governor laughs at California, according to the account in the grievance.

One faculty member asked how the college was expected to attract and retain people of color to the faculty. Another asked about the focus that was put on these areas in response to nationwide outrage following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

According to the grievance, Hass responded that, while diversity and inclusion were a focus of the administration at every meeting last year, that is no longer the case.

Busey’s notes state that Hass said the administration does not value the work.

“I don’t know how I can look at you and say you shouldn’t look for another job,” Hass said, according to Busey’s notes.

He also alleges that at a meeting a few weeks later held by College of Education dean Glenn Good, faculty were told the graduate school “would not approve anything with the word ‘critical’ in the title.” The concentration titled “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education” would need to be changed. The dean said Glover would support a concentration that said, “studies of race” as long as “critical” was gone, according to the grievance.

College of Education dean Glenn Good
College of Education dean Glenn Good [ University of Florida ]

“We are positioned to push this through if we change the language,” Good said, according to Busey’s notes. “We don’t want blinking red lights to give them red meat.”

The complaint alleges that following the faculty meeting Ester de Jong, director of the School of Teaching and Learning and chair of Busey’s department, advised Busey to change the title of the concentration. It says she told him the administration wouldn’t be looking at course names and he could essentially continue teaching as he had been.

In a meeting two weeks later between faculty and Good, the dean said Hass might have “gotten ahead of himself” and that things were not so bad, the grievance said.

It quotes Good as saying he was told by Glover, the provost, that the new bill discouraging uncomfortable classroom discussions on race may not pass and that the focus had shifted to parental rights, so not to be too concerned with it at the moment. Still, the words “critical” and “race” in proximity to one another were a no-go.

“We do not want to inflame Tallahassee,” Good told the faculty, according to Busey’s notes. “Everything else is a go and the leadership is behind our work if we just make those minor adjustments to the titles of our curriculum.”

In a statement on the College of Education’s website dated Nov. 5, Good addressed mounting concerns about academic freedom.

“In our College of Education, we teach students to ask imperative questions and create important solutions that improve education for all students,” the dean wrote. “We support our faculty’s work to advance education, both in and outside the classroom. We are eager to work together with stakeholders from around the college and university to find solutions that champion academic freedom and continue advancing issues of anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The college, he wrote, had taken several steps to promote diversity, equity and inclusion through their work and would continue to do so.

In the grievance, the union calls on the university to “cease and desist from requiring faculty under threat of discipline to eliminate and/or whitewash a widely accepted area of study related to critical race theory from the curriculum.”

It further states that “these intrusions into curricular matters represent an egregious and unprecedented violation of academic freedom... and threaten to undermine faculty autonomy and tarnish the reputation of the University of Florida.”

Good, Hass and de Jong declined to comment when contacted directly by the Times, saying grievances were confidential.

Two prominent GOP lawmakers who have rallied against the subject of critical race theory said Wednesday that they were not surprised by the allegations, and one said he welcomed the alleged restrictions on Busey’s curriculum.

“I am heartened to see universities act proactively to get this garbage out of our state,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit the teaching or promotion of “divisive concepts, race or sex scapegoating, or race or sex stereotyping” in state institutions.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is sponsoring the House version of that bill, said he would like to learn more about Busey’s proposed course before commenting on whether he agrees with what he is teaching. However, he noted that Busey’s proposed title did raise concerns and “doesn’t sound good.”

He added that if he came to find out it was heavily focused on critical race theory, he would “absolutely use it as an example” for the need for his bill.

“There are limits to what is acceptable in the discussion of academic freedom,” Fine said. “There are constraints that we put on things and we do not believe taxpayer money in the state of Florida should be used in advance to this racist, evil ideology, which is as un-American as it comes.”

Busey, who is Black and a first-generation alumnus of UF, said in a statement that he was disheartened to take the route of filing a grievance.

“I was recruited to the university to engage in scholarship, teaching, and service for the betterment of our university, local, and statewide communities,” he said. “Our collective efforts and freedom of speech should never be censored, but instead cherished as a key principle of this university which should act as a beacon for the state of Florida and the nation.”

Ortiz, the faculty union president, said the issue underscores the organization’s call for an independent investigation into external influences at the university.

Last week, in response to another controversy over academic freedom, Fuchs sent an email to the university community stating that UF was free from any undue influence. He was referring to the university’s recent decision barring three professors from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over Florida’s new voting restrictions, a move that prompted widespread condemnation and another court challenge.

Particularly problematic, Ortiz said, were the attempts at targeting critical race theory.

“They know critical race theory is taught in law schools,” he said. “But the real goal is to stop us from looking at the foundations of racism in society. They want us to think the foundations of Jim Crow, slavery, segregation were based on individuals, not institutions.”

Ortiz, a UF history professor, has authored a book that has caught the attention of Texas legislators trying to clamp down on critical race theory. He said many of the scholars being targeted at UF are Black and are being told to water down what they’re doing.

With controversies over the three professors and now Busey’s grievance, the optics of the last couple of months have been troubling, Ortiz said. “We need to become a public institution again.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.