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UF responded well to free speech allegations, report says

The university took steps to safeguard academic freedom last year, an accrediting body concludes.
A look at the University Auditorium at the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. An investigation found the university was in compliance with principles of accreditation after allegations last year that it had stifled academic freedom.
A look at the University Auditorium at the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. An investigation found the university was in compliance with principles of accreditation after allegations last year that it had stifled academic freedom. [ University of Florida ]
Published Jun. 17|Updated Jun. 17

The group that accredits the University of Florida said Thursday that the school had complied with its principles, acted with integrity and taken adequate steps over the last five months to protect academic freedom.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits universities in the Southeast, had launched an investigation in November after reading news reports about UF professors who were initially forbidden from testifying in cases against the state because university officials told them it was not in the best interest of the school.

The association said it reached its conclusions about UF’s response after visiting the Gainesville campus in April and talking with faculty, staff and administrators.

Its report stated that UF “provided evidence of new procedures approved by the Faculty Senate that rectified the problems that arose last year.”

The school took several steps after the professors forbidden from participating in cases filed a federal lawsuit against the university and an internal investigation was launched. Administrators announced changes to their conflict of interest policy, added an appeals process and created a website about UF’s procedures.

“While there are still unresolved concerns among individuals at the institution regarding complex aspects of how conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and consideration of viewpoint may erode academic freedom, the institution has endeavored in good faith to put safeguards and corrections in place,” the Southern Association’s report said.

It added, however, that the association’s members were concerned about recent legislation in Florida “regarding censorship in the classroom” and that mid-level managers at UF shared those concerns. The notation was an apparent reference to the Legislature’s passage of the “Stop Woke Act,” which limits how race-related issues are taught in public universities, colleges and workplace trainings. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in April.

The Southern Association’s involvement in the UF controversy irritated some state lawmakers, leading to another new law — this one requiring state universities and colleges to change their accreditor every cycle.

The association’s investigation was seen as a serious matter that could have led to consequences — including loss of federal financial aid and research money — if the university failed to address problems.

The report led to a lengthy outpouring Thursday from UF Board of Trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini, who complained about media coverage of the controversy that pointed to the university’s connections to state political leaders and partially focused on him.

“Where do I get my reputation back?” Hosseini said during Thursday’s trustees’ meeting.

He proceeded to refer to UF president Kent Fuchs, saying, “Where do I get his reputation back? Where do I get the reputation of this university back?”

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Hosseini called the accreditation body’s investigation “unfair” and said the university suffered “collateral damage” for what he suggested was an agenda to make newspaper readers click on stories.

“We were the subject of investigation,” he said. “For how many days, they came and investigated us. It’s unfair.... It’s no longer sensational for them to write a story about us. We have in every case, every allegation, it came out that we had nothing to do with it, we had no part of it or we have done nothing wrong.”

Hosseini added: “No one ever politically has pressured us. Ever. Never. No one. Me or anyone else.”

He also defended UF’s hiring of Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, which a Faculty Senate report found violated the university’s hiring procedures.

“While some consider (Ladapo’s) views on topics that include vaccines and face masks unconventional, he is well within his rights to express those opinions,” Hosseini said. “Some might even argue in doing so he is exercising his academic freedom.”

He cited Ladapo’s academic credentials and asserted the university had followed proper procedures in hiring him.

Fuchs, who is slated to retire soon, said he was pleased with the Southern Association’s report, which noted some “positive outcomes” from last year’s “ordeal,” including the speed with which he and the Faculty Senate responded. The report said the new policies implemented address “almost all” shortcomings of previous policies.

“It’s good to have that behind us and affirm what we knew was true back in November,” Fuchs said.

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