University of Florida president W. Kent Fuchs, who led the school to a top national ranking, nurtured close ties with students and recently drew a firestorm of criticism over academic freedom issues, announced Wednesday he will step down soon to take a faculty position.
Fuchs, 67, said he will remain president until a new leader is found. He became UF’s 12th president in 2015.
The announcement comes after a series of events during the fall semester that raised questions about the university’s independence from the state’s political leaders and its policies governing academic freedom. But university officials said Fuchs’ decision came well before those issues were raised.
In a video message to the university community, Fuchs said he told board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini of his decision in August and that the two agreed to inform the public this month. University spokesperson Steve Orlando said the arrangement was reached during a discussion between the two men on Aug. 2 in Hosseini’s office. He provided a letter Fuchs sent to Hosseini dated Jan. 1 that referenced the meeting.
The university said Fuchs and Hosseini would not be available for interviews.
In his video, Fuchs recalled he had pledged at the start of his tenure that he would lift UF to a Top 10 standing in the national rankings, complete a $3 billion fundraising campaign and not increase tuition. “Those promises were made and those promises were kept,” he said.
He said he plans to take a sabbatical before returning to take a professor position in the department of electrical and computer engineering research.
Over the last year, Fuchs has been praised as the driving force behind UF’s rise to the No. 5 spot in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of public universities. The school ranked No. 14 when he became president.
He was also lauded after the university launched a massive initiative in July 2020 to familiarize the entire student body with artificial intelligence concepts by infusing the subject across all academic areas.
More recently, Fuchs has been the subject of intense criticism from faculty and the greater higher education community after issues of academic freedom arose during the fall semester, putting a dent in the school’s reputation. Some have called for Fuchs and Hosseini to leave or be removed.
The upcoming national search for a successor at Florida’s flagship university will be the third presidential search underway in the State University System. The University of South Florida and the University of North Florida are looking for new presidents as well. Florida State University selected a new president, Richard D. McCullough, in May.
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Prior to joining UF, Fuchs served as provost of Cornell University and in other administrative roles at Cornell, Purdue and the University of Illinois. He has a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois, and a master of divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Fuchs quoted the Apostle Paul in his video message, saying: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Faculty Senate president David Bloom said in an interview that Fuchs enjoyed a mostly positive relationship with faculty members. While some questioned his relationship with the state, he said, others saw it as part of the challenge of navigating the job, “particularly in a red state.”
“There’s no easy way through that,” Bloom said.
Even in recent interactions, Bloom said, Fuchs brought “brightness” to otherwise dark issues. Those included a controversial university decision last semester to ban three political science professors from testifying against the state in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new voting laws.
Though Fuchs reversed the decision, that and other alleged breaches of faculty free speech nevertheless prompted investigations by a congressional committee and by the organization that accredits universities in the Southeast. Also, six professors filed a federal lawsuit alleging free speech violations.
Bloom noted that Fuchs quickly agreed to meet and adopt changes after a Faculty Senate committee found alleged breaches of academic freedom.
He called Fuchs an advocate for diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives, particularly regarding UF’s senior leaders. Under Fuchs, he said, more women and underrepresented people in academia are serving as deans and in other top positions.
Bloom said Fuchs was also thought of by some as an advocate for free speech after his controversial decision in 2017 to allow white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus, shortly after Spencer organized the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
He also noted Fuchs’ penchant for playfully mingling on campus. The president’s website includes videos of him sharing butter cookies and shaved ice with students, photobombing graduates in their commencement robes, ferrying students to classes in a golf cart and dyeing his hair blue and orange, the school colors, to encourage student mask wearing during the pandemic.
Student body president Cooper Brown said he appreciated his regular meetings with Fuchs, realizing his contemporaries at other schools often have difficulty getting the same access with their presidents.
“President Fuchs is a great leader and a wonderful man,” Brown said. “He is genuinely kind, thoughtful, and humble.... Dr. Fuchs is the type of person who will meet you once and remember you forever.”
Bloom said he has faith the board of trustees will select a strong successor.
“It’s always a little bit of an anxious time when you have leadership changes,” he said. “It’s a very prescribed process. I think our board of trustees is going to be keen on us finding someone to advance UF’s reputation and ranking.... I think momentum will take us through. I don’t really have concerns about it.”
Still, UF’s search will take place in a crowded market. Alberto Pimentel, the consultant leading USF’s search for a new president, said recently that USF was competing with about dozen other presidential searches.
He added that the job had grown less desirable over the last few years as more university presidents are “encouraged” to step down by boards of trustees, state legislatures apply more pressure, and activist groups target presidents on social media.
But Alan Levine, a member of the Florida Board of Governors who served on the search committee that found Fuchs, said he believed strong candidates will emerge.
“There couldn’t be a better time to recruit a new president on the heels of UF ranking in the Top 5,” he said.
But faith in the search process is imperative at a time when the relationship between politics and higher education has been called into question, Levine said. Candidates will likely have questions.
During the recent presidential search at Florida State University, Levine called for the process to be halted after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the major accrediting body for the Southeast, weighed in with concerns over education commissioner Richard Corcoran being named a frontrunner.
Corcoran, a former lawmaker, did not become a finalist. But Levine, and later other members of the board, criticized the association for interfering with the process.
More recently, the association wrote to UF saying it would be launching its own investigation into whether the school had violated accreditation policies in light of academic freedom issues. Levine cautioned that the organization keep its distance regarding UF’s upcoming presidential search.
“I don’t think speculative comments are helpful,” he said. “Let our governance work.... Their comments are not welcome, they’re not helpful. They can upend a search.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a UF alumna who recently rebuked Fuchs over his response to academic freedom concerns, said she was thankful for his service to the university.
“President Fuchs helped propel the University of Florida to the elite ranks of America’s public universities, and he did it while leading a phenomenally successful capital campaign and helping hold tuition costs down,” the South Florida Democrat said in a statement. “His personal touch on campus was a warm welcome for many students, like it was for my own children. Unfortunately, he also dealt with untenable, unacceptable pressure from the executive branch and their appointees that resulted in policies anathema to the integrity of an academic institution.”
Meera Sitharam, vice president of UF’s United Faculty of Florida chapter, said the news that Fuchs had wanted to resign prior to the fall semester has slightly rehabilitated his image among faculty who were critics of his stances on COVID policies and academic freedom issues.
She recalled the anxiety faculty felt during the last presidential search, when approval of the outgoing president was at a low but people wondered who would want to come in and work for then-Gov. Rick Scott.
“There’s going to be a similar type of apprehension about who on Earth is going to show up to work in DeSantis’ Florida,” Sitharam said, referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Still, she said, she is hopeful and remembered the sense of relief faculty felt when Fuchs and another candidate from New York University emerged with strong academic credentials during the last presidential search.
Danaya Wright, a faculty member who served on the committee investigating issues of academic freedom, said she felt bad for Fuchs in some sense.
“He has worked really, really hard,” she said. “He has been really humane and funny and down to earth. It’s a really difficult job. I admire his hard work and the humanity and care he has brought to the job. But at points the buck stops with him with some of the issues the university faces.”
From agreeing to ease COVID-19 restrictions on campus to his decision on the three political science professors, Wright said, she believed Fuchs probably thought he was acting in the university’s best interests.
“I don’t want to call it a devil’s bargain, but it’s kind of what it was,” she said. “At some point I think it got too far.... I think he wanted a mask mandate and vaccine mandate, and wanted to do what was right.”
She said she hopes the next president will be able to stand up to the state.
“I’ve been at UF 24 years and I’ve always known you don’t want to tick off Tallahassee, and I think that’s a real problem,” Wright said. “I don’t think you can be a Top 5 institution if you have that fear.”
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