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UF free speech controversy becomes an issue in Florida governor’s race

Democratic candidates Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried call for action. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office says it applied no pressure on the university.
From left, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried. Crist and Fried have made recent events at the University of Florida an issue in the governor's race as they vie to unseat DeSantis.
From left, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried. Crist and Fried have made recent events at the University of Florida an issue in the governor's race as they vie to unseat DeSantis. [ The Florida Channel; DIRK SHADD | Times; Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 9, 2021
Updated Dec. 9, 2021

Florida’s flagship university, battling allegations that it is too easily swayed by political leaders, has suddenly become a topic in the governor’s race.

As concerns mount over academic freedom at the University of Florida, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried have separately called for action, while also taking Gov. Ron DeSantis to task.

In a letter Wednesday to the Board of Governors, the governing body of the state university system, Crist called for an investigation into the allegations brought forth in a report this week by the university’s Faculty Senate.

The report outlined a range of concerns, from faculty being pressed to rename curricula related to race to pressures on those doing COVID-19 research, including “external pressure” to destroy unspecified data and “barriers” to publishing.

The report was commissioned after three UF professors spoke of being denied the ability to participate as expert witnesses due to the university’s conflict of interest policy. They were told their participation in a case against the state was not in the school’s best interest, sparking concerns about academic freedom.

The decision was later reversed and UF president Kent Fuchs assembled a task force to explore the policy. The professors filed a lawsuit calling for an end to the policy, and three more faculty joined as plaintiffs, saying they had also been denied the opportunity to participate in outside activities.

More recently, a professor filed a grievance over the university’s refusal to approve an academic concentration with the words “critical” and “race” in proximity to each other because of fears it would offend the Legislature.

While Fuchs’ task force made recommendations regarding the policy, many faculty called for an external investigation.

In his letter, Crist said that as a former education commissioner in Florida, he knew “the importance of preserving academic freedom at our universities.” The congressman pointed to DeSantis as the source of pressure.

“Academic freedom is a pillar of what makes American universities the greatest in the world,” the letter said. “Communist China has party-run universities. We reject that nonsense in Florida.”

His letter came a day after Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, called for the firing of Mori Hosseini as chairperson of UF’s board of trustees. Hosseini is a DeSantis donor who, at a recent trustees meeting, took issue with the implication his relationship with the governor was problematic.

“I’ve been deeply disappointed in the consistent pattern of inappropriate and unethical political interference that’s occurring at the highest levels of UF,” Fried said in a statement. “It’s clear that the Chairman of the UF Board of Trustees, Mori Hosseini, needs to be removed from his position. Under his leadership, UF has fallen from a world-class learning institution to a school that censors its faculty — and the truth — to further the radical political agenda of the Governor and his appointees on the UF Board of Trustees.”

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Christina Pushaw, press secretary for the governor, said in a statement that DeSantis would not intervene in “internal matters” at UF, but that he was confident in the school’s leadership and trajectory, reaching a Top 5 ranking among public universities this year.

Further, the office denied applying any pressure toward UF and pointed to part of the Faculty Senate report which stated its authors did not have time to fully investigate every allegation.

“The report contains plenty of unsourced allegations and innuendo, but zero evidence that Governor DeSantis or anyone connected to the governor’s office has exerted or attempted to exert improper influence on UF,” the statement said. “This is because it did not happen. The task force stated clearly that they ‘did not fully investigate these reports,’ admitting that this is hearsay that they cannot back up with verifiable facts.”

Pushaw said in the statement that DeSantis is “a staunch advocate for academic freedom.”