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UF trustees blast faculty over free speech controversy

Board of trustees chairperson calls faculty protests “disrespectful,” adding, “This will not stand.”
Mori Hosseini, chairperson of the University of Florida board of trustees, strongly criticized faculty members on Friday, saying their actions during a recent controversy over academic freedom have been "disrespectful."
Mori Hosseini, chairperson of the University of Florida board of trustees, strongly criticized faculty members on Friday, saying their actions during a recent controversy over academic freedom have been "disrespectful." [ University of Florida ]
Published Dec. 3, 2021
Updated Dec. 3, 2021

As concerns over academic freedom at the University of Florida grow, with a petition signed by hundreds of faculty, members of the UF board of trustees said Friday that the school had done nothing wrong and expressed annoyance at news reports and the faculty members who have spoken out.

Mori Hosseini, the board’s chairperson, said at a meeting in Gainesville that he wished to “set the record straight.”

He criticized a “small number” of faculty who, he said, had “used their position to advocate personal, political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.” He and another board member lamented that the faculty union had encouraged UF donors to stop giving. He also spoke out against a department chair who tried on behalf of his faculty to evade the university’s COVID-related requirements to hold in-person classes this fall.

“To this I say enough,” Hosseini said. “This behavior is unacceptable. It is disrespectful....This will not stand. It must stop and it will stop. If you allow something to happen, that means you condone it. Let me tell you, our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither will this board. And we shouldn’t.”

His comments came in response to an ongoing controversy that began earlier this semester when three UF political science professors were barred from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over Florida’s new voting laws. After widespread condemnation of that move from inside and outside the university, UF president Kent Fuchs said the professors could participate in the suit, providing they did so on their own time and did not use university resources.

He also set up a task force to study a university policy that deals with conflicts of interest and outside activities by faculty members, which came into play with the three professors and had recently been revised.

Hosseini said the policy was changed after the university learned that a small group of faculty members had abused their positions for personal gain. Some took outside jobs on university time, he said.

The revisions called for university approval of participation in outside activities. They have “nothing to do with the First Amendment or academic freedom,” Hosseini said. “On the contrary, we and the administration absolutely support the First Amendment rights of our faculty and their academic freedom to teach, research, publish and exercise their rights as citizens.”

Related: UF faced with thorny - and old - questions about political meddling

Hosseini also praised Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson and Gov. Ron DeSantis for their support of the university. He took issue with the notion that UF’s decisions regarding the three professors were the result of political pressure.

“Our state leaders understand how important these things are, and they have followed through when we have asked,” Hosseini said. “While the media has suggested the governor has played some role through this relationship with me in UF’s decisions on outside activities and conflict of interest, let’s be clear: That is 100 percent false. Neither I nor any other member of this board, the governor, nor any legislators had any influence on the specific decisions of outside activities or conflict of interest. Period.”

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Other trustees echoed his sentiments, complaining about news reports, praising Fuchs and grumbling about faculty “working against” the mission of the school.

Rahul Patel
Rahul Patel [ University of Florida ]

Rahul Patel, a trustee who said he “100 percent agreed” with Hosseini’s sentiments, suggested the university publicly express support for their faculty and academic freedom. He called recent news reports about the controversy an “unfortunate distraction.”

“With the exception of a few, vocal, minority faculty, we are in sync 100 percent with our faculty,” he said.

As of Friday, more than 280 UF faculty had signed a petition by a newly formed group, the Coalition for Academic Freedom at UF. The group is not affiliated with UF’s faculty union, but it backed the union’s recent demands, which included a call for the university’s donors to stop giving and scholars to steer clear of the school. The coalition added nine demands of its own, including asking the university to cease efforts to terminate courses or change course names that deal with race and other sensitive topics.

The latter was a reference to a UF College of Education professor who this week filed a grievance saying he was told not to use the words “critical” and “race” in an online description of his specialization. The wording, he was told, came too close to the controversial topic of “critical race theory.”

While the coalition was formed in recent weeks, many UF faculty say the climate surrounding academic freedom has been shifting for much longer.

Nancy Dowd, a law professor and one of the coalition organizers, said things haven’t always been this way in her 32 years at the university.

When she was director of the Center on Children and Families, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, faculty members testified in the interest of children in state litigation. Their participation, she said, was based solely on research and scholarship.

Nancy Dowd
Nancy Dowd [ University of Florida ]

“We didn’t seek permission to make that argument or have the administration saying, ‘Oh wait, wait, wait, we don’t know if that’s such a good idea,’” she said. “The politics of our country and our state are deeply challenged at this point. Things that were unthinkable are now challenged. We’re in a deeply divided moment.”

Dowd said she first began to feel a shift during former Gov. Rick Scott’s term, when, she said, the law school began to feel pressure over the selection of a new dean.

“The issues are not isolated incidents but rather suggest broader and deeper issues that didn’t just pop up now,” Dowd said.

Clarence Gravlee, a professor of anthropology and an organizer of the coalition, said recent legislation, including a proposed bill to prevent “racial scapegoating” in education settings, has exacerbated the climate. While he said he’s not surprised to see that from politicians, he is distressed by the UF administration’s response.

“All of these actions are threats to fundamental democratic institutions,” Gravlee said. “If I told you the same set of facts, and didn’t tell you where it was happening, it would be chilling and obvious that we’re staring in the face of authoritarianism.”

The university, he said, is clamping down on the type of scholarship that would allow people to clearly see these changes. He finds the threats to internal curricula, like the professor being asked to avoid “critical race,” more alarming.

Michelle Jacobs, a professor of law and organizer of the coalition, said the law school has already lost two or three faculty candidates while hiring due to the recent issues.

“If you have restrictions on what they can say based on the research they do, that impacts if they can get research done, published and tenured,” she said. “This ability to restrict what we can say and do in class and with our students… where will it end?”