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UF researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data, faculty report says

Faculty Senate panel alleges more violations of academic freedom. Says staff was told not to contradict state on pandemic issues.
A view of the University of Florida from the campus entrance at W University Avenue and SW 13th Street in Gainesville.
A view of the University of Florida from the campus entrance at W University Avenue and SW 13th Street in Gainesville. [ Google Maps ]
Published Dec. 7, 2021|Updated Dec. 7, 2021

Fear of upsetting state officials is pervasive among faculty at the University of Florida, to the point that race-related references have been edited out of course materials and researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data, according to a report released Monday by a Faculty Senate committee.

The six-person panel was convened three weeks ago to investigate academic freedom issues after the university decided to bar three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state. But its findings go well beyond that episode and were so disturbing — especially regarding COVID-19 research — that the group decided to speed up its work, said Danaya Wright, a constitutional law professor and former Faculty Senate chairperson who served on the committee.

“We knew it was much more widespread,” Wright said in an interview Monday. “We knew there was more silencing and pressure coming from above. The Big Above.”

The committee received a flood of input from faculty, from stories about attempts to serve as expert witnesses to instances that dealt with race and COVID-19 research across disciplines.

The report discusses several “challenges” faced by UF researchers who were working on COVID-19 with an unidentified state entity. It describes “external pressure to destroy” data as well as “barriers” to accessing, analyzing and publishing the numbers. Taken together, the report said, those problems “inhibited the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic.”

The report further states that UF employees were told “not to criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions.” It says they were told not to use their UF titles or affiliation in written commentary or to give oral presentations. And faculty at UF Health expressed concerns over funding being in jeopardy if they did not adopt the state’s stance on pandemic regulations in opinion articles, the report says.

The allegations related to data destruction added a sense of urgency to the committee’s work, Wright said.

UF law professor Danaya Wright
UF law professor Danaya Wright [ University of Florida ]

“COVID research, it is life and death to not be able to do your job,” Wright said. “To have your research that you’ve trained for so many years to be able to do, to have that research tabled, put on the shelf and ignored and not get it out there to the academic community to get it out there and see if it’s going to do any good.”

The report also details other allegations, including that “websites were required to be changed, that course syllabi had to be restructured, and that use of the terms “critical” and “race” could not appear together in the same sentence or document.”

All allegations were kept confidential due to fear of retaliation.

“More problematic than the individual examples of pressure to stifle unpopular viewpoints or restrict research was the palpable reticence and even fear on the part of faculty to speak up on these issues,” the report states. “There was grave concern about retaliation and a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way.”

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As a tenured faculty member, Wright said she feels a duty to speak up, though she said she wishes the issue was not perceived as faculty versus administration.

“We’ve reached a point where many faculty feel that wherever this pressure is coming from, it is interfering with our duty and loyalty and commitment and responsibility to seek the truth and make that knowledge available,” she said. “Faculty desperately want to do our jobs.”

The source of the pressure remains unclear, she said.

Just before the Thanksgiving break, a task force convened by the university reached a different conclusion on the issue of academic freedom, saying in its own report that “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.”

Asked on Monday to comment on the Faculty Senate report, the university declined.

The faculty report states that “the lack of documented rules and procedures” make understanding denials of participation in outside activity difficult. It said the committee contacted members of the administration, but that outreach “did not yield much new information.”

One administrator said he was advised by the university’s general counsel not to comment because of pending litigation, the report said. Six professors, including the three involved in the initial controversy over not being allowed to testify, have filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Wright said she herself was told she could contact any lawmakers as long as they were not from Florida regarding potential legislation she is drafting pertaining to wills and trusts — an issue she contends should be noncontroversial. She said deans tend to be the bearers of the bad news, but that most faculty believe the orders come from above.

“We don’t know how many people it’s filtered through,” she said.

The report also contains talks with faculty who imposed self-censorship on their work, unsure how to proceed or if they may face consequences.

Wright, who has been at UF for 24 years, said the university has always had a culture of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But while she’s appreciative to the Legislature for its support, she said the faculty is working for the taxpayers, who are funding their jobs.

“Ultimately our loyalty is to the people of Florida and to the search for knowledge,” she said. “If things above that are interfering with that, regardless of where that’s coming from, we can’t do our jobs. … We have one job as faculty and that is to discover, create truth, knowledge and push the boundaries of human understanding and then to promulgate that information to the public.”

The committee’s report also referred to remarks on Friday by Mori Hosseini, chairperson of UF’s board of trustees, who blasted faculty members who have spoken out in recent weeks about academic freedom. He called others disrespectful, and said that some had abused their positions. He said their behavior “will not stand.”

The school’s response, including “hasty and limited” efforts to review policies, have not addressed larger issues, the report said. Among them, it said, are “the serious reports of efforts to stifle the scientific and medical community’s research into and professional duty to report the developing scientific information on Covid-19.”

The report said the committee hopes the university will “ultimately address these concerns and contribute to enhancing the integrity and mission of UF as a respected institution of higher learning so that the people of Florida will benefit from a world-class institution that they have paid so much to create and support and to which they are so deserving.”

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