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Accrediting group plans campus visit to examine allegations at UF

Letter says there “may be” evidence of breaches affecting the school’s accreditation.
After an onsite visit, a team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will present its findings to the association’s board of trustees in June.
After an onsite visit, a team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will present its findings to the association’s board of trustees in June. [ University of Florida ]
Published Dec. 16, 2021
Updated Dec. 17, 2021

Officials at the University of Florida have worked to quiet the reaction to recent allegations that the school has stifled free speech and harmed academic freedom.

UF president Kent Fuchs says the university is committed to those principles and will try to improve. Board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini called the allegations false and said those who made them were disrespectful.

But the organization that accredits the university wants to come to campus and investigate before drawing any conclusions. In a letter to the school this week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said after reviewing media reports and materials sent by the university it has determined “there may be sufficient factual information supporting significant noncompliance with the principles of accreditation.”

After an onsite visit, the letter said, a team from the association will present its findings to the association’s board of trustees in June. It said UF would be informed of the board’s decision within two weeks.

The letter was sent by Belle Wheelan, president of the association’s board.

The association is the accrediting organization for universities in the southeastern United States. A loss of accreditation could lead to a loss of research dollars and federal aid for students. And problems with accreditation could jeopardize UF’s hard-won status as a Top 5 public university.

The allegations arose earlier this semester after three UF political science professors were initially barred from testifying against the state in a lawsuit over Florida’s new voting laws. The university later allowed the three to testify, but the policy that gave rise to the initial decision remained, prompting the faculty members to sue UF in federal court.

Since then, more allegations have surfaced from a Faculty Senate task force, including reported pressures on those doing work surrounding race and COVID-19. The university launched its own investigation into a report alleging that UF researchers had felt pressure to destroy data about the virus.

In a November news release, Fuchs stated “unequivocally” that UF’s decisions were not influenced by pressure from outside the university.

University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said in a statement that the administration is committed to working with faculty to “implement and strengthen policies and transparency” in keeping with a task force set up by Fuchs and a Faculty Senate committee looking at academic freedom issues.

“We have a shared desire to ensure that academic freedom is preserved and protected at the University of Florida,” the statement said. “To that end, we welcome the pending review by (the accrediting organization) and will cooperate fully with the committee’s work.”

Earlier this year, the association launched an inquiry into the hiring process at Florida State University after education commissioner Richard Corcoran was named as a shortlisted candidate. Corcoran did not progress as a finalist and the Board of Governors later lambasted Wheelan for getting involved.