UF president, faculty agree on changes to safeguard free speech

Controversy cools a bit as president Kent Fuchs and Faculty Senate leader David Bloom hammer out a way forward.
The changes include adding an appeal process and including faculty on committees to review decisions regarding the university’s conflict of interest policy.
The changes include adding an appeal process and including faculty on committees to review decisions regarding the university’s conflict of interest policy. [ Times (2015) ]
Published Dec. 10, 2021|Updated Dec. 10, 2021

The University of Florida and faculty leaders announced an agreement late Thursday that they described as “a first step” toward quelling a controversy over academic freedom.

Following weeks of intense scrutiny — including a federal lawsuit, a union grievance, an inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives, and this week’s explosive report detailing more allegations from a Faculty Senate committee — a meeting between Faculty Senate chairperson David Bloom and UF president Kent Fuchs appeared to offer the possibility of a truce.

Bloom, who also serves on the university’s board of trustees, told faculty members in a letter that administrators had heard the concerns cited in the report, which outlined multiple alleged breaches of academic freedom.

He said he had met with Fuchs and reached agreements in five areas after the report raised “sobering” issues, including alleged pressure for faculty to change their course materials and “external pressure” to destroy research data on COVID-19.

David Bloom
David Bloom [ University of Florida ]

“Clearly, changes to culture and trust will not occur overnight, but there are some changes to policies that need to be made with all due haste to safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech,” wrote Bloom, a professor in the College of Medicine.

The changes include adding an appeal process and including faculty on committees to review decisions regarding the university’s conflict of interest policy. The policy came under fire after some professors said they were denied the opportunity to serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits against the state, the argument being that it was not in the university’s best interest. The new appeal process also will apply in situations where faculty are denied permission to participate in activities outside their university duties.

Fuchs and Bloom further agreed the administration would reaffirm that faculty members are allowed to speak to the press freely as private citizens as well as in areas of their expertise, as their First Amendment rights grant them.

Additionally, they agreed the university would reaffirm that faculty “have the right to research and timely publication without interference by outside influence,” an area of concern mentioned in the Faculty Senate report, particularly regarding COVID-19 research.

They also found common ground in another area, agreeing that faculty will “have control over the content of their syllabi and course materials.” That topic drew attention when a professor filed a grievance after he was told the words “critical” and “race” could not be used in proximity, lest Florida lawmakers interpret it as a reference to critical race theory.

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“We’re committed to taking these right next steps,” Fuchs said in a statement, thanking the Faculty Senate for its report.

“The university welcomes the full exploration of its intellectual boundaries and supports its faculty and students in the creation of new knowledge and the pursuit of new ideas,” the statement said.

In his message to faculty, Bloom wrote that the agreement with Fuchs was an “important first step in addressing the concerns that have been raised.” He also proposed that a committee composed of faculty and administrators explore additional policy changes to safeguard academic freedom.

“I am confident that through our shared governance process we will be able to resolve these issues,” Bloom said in his message. “How we respond to this challenge will define our university for years to come.”

David O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, attorneys for six professors who have sued the university saying its conflict of interest policy is the root of the problem, said Fuchs’ statement didn’t go far enough.

“The faculty’s First Amendment rights do not depend on the University’s promise that it will try to do better in the future,” they wrote, saying the policy “violates the faculty’s rights every day that it remains.”

Danaya Wright, a law professor and member of the committee that compiled the report, said she’s hopeful each college has meaningful conversations about the allegations raised in the report, and that UF builds stronger “firewalls” between itself and the political landscape.

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to get people to pay attention to the problem,” Wright said.

Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter, said he doesn’t think the administration and board of trustees fully understand the gravity of the issue and that the problem is larger than the incidents cited so far.

“The broad perception now is that UF is less a public university and more a tool of a few highly placed Tallahassee politicians,” he said. “There’s no committee you can form to change that. That requires much broader commitment and recommitment to intellectual freedom.”

And yet, he said, he doesn’t blame Tallahassee.

“I don’t blame Gov. DeSantis for any of this,” Ortiz said. “I doubt he would even call UF to tell them to do this. He’s too busy…. We often like to blame people outside the university for the problems we have, but in this case I think we did it to ourselves. It’s up to us to turn this thing around.”