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UF faced with thorny - and old - questions about political meddling

Concerns about how Florida’s flagship university is governed have grown after two recent controversies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis unfurls a University of Florida baseball jersey given to him the day it was announced that the school achieved a No. 5 ranking among public universities on Sept. 13, 2021. The gift was presented by UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini, at left.
Gov. Ron DeSantis unfurls a University of Florida baseball jersey given to him the day it was announced that the school achieved a No. 5 ranking among public universities on Sept. 13, 2021. The gift was presented by UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini, at left. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Nov. 5
Updated Nov. 5

TALLAHASSEE — Four of the 13 board members responsible for governing the University of Florida are major donors to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign, giving a collective $661,800 the last few years, according to a review by the Times/Herald.

While such political participation from the school’s board of trustees is hardly new, it poses a sudden perception problem for the governing body of a university that is trying to quell concerns that political pressures are jeopardizing the academic integrity of the state’s flagship university.

Those concerns grew late last month when it was learned that the University of Florida fast-tracked the hiring of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ divisive surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, into a tenured position at the medical school.

Then, last week, those concerns blossomed after reports that UF also barred three professors from being paid as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit filed against the state, part of a broader policy — it was later reported — that prohibited an additional five professors from testifying against state policies or laws. On Friday, as protests mounted, UF President Kent Fuchs announced he was seeking a reversal of policy that would allow the testimony.

The twin controversies have garnered national attention, scorn and triggered a probe by the university’s accrediting body about whether “academic freedom” and “undue political influence” standards were violated.

They’ve also revived old debates about how, or whether, universities should be free from political meddling.

Since at least the 1950s, universities have struggled to balance academic freedom — an issue so paramount they created tenure to protect it — with the whims of Florida’s governors and legislators, who control their institutions’ purse strings. The debate over political independence has shaped — and reshaped — how Florida’s universities are governed, even causing a clash of two of the state’s political titans two decades ago.

UF’s current board of trustees includes two trustees who are represented by the faculty and the student body. Six are appointed by the governor and five by the Board of Governors, a 17-member body overseeing the university system of which 14 members are appointed by the governor to 7-year terms.

The recent news of the gag orders have left some university professors chilled, fearing they don’t have the autonomy to speak freely because of the policies set by the board.

“A lot of the faculty are caught between a rock and a hard place, because they know that if they stand up, there’s nothing they can do,” said Mark Hostetler, a professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. “There is some pressure, but leadership has shown that they’re not going to respond to pressure from faculty, but they’re responding to all the pressure from the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees and the Legislature.”

Trustees are also donors

Members of UF’s board of trustees are responsible for setting school policies and serving as the “institution’s legal owner and final authority.” They are similar to the board members of the past in that some are political donors and deep-pocketed corporate executives.

Four of the UF trustees are major donors to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign.

Mori Hosseini [University of Florida]
Mori Hosseini [University of Florida]

They include Mori Hosseini, the homebuilder and longtime GOP donor who appears to have played a critical role in getting the university to hire DeSantis’ surgeon general. Hosseini, who was reappointed to the board by DeSantis in January, has given nearly $112,000 to his political committee, either directly or through his companies, ICI Homes and Intervest.

James W. Heavener
James W. Heavener [ University of Florida ]

Jim Heavener, CEO of The Heavener Company and the for-profit Full Sail University, was appointed to the board by DeSantis in January. He’s a UF graduate and major university donor, with a football facility named after him, and he’s given $250,000 to DeSantis’ committee.

Rahul Patel
Rahul Patel [ University of Florida ]

Rahul Patel was reappointed to the board by DeSantis last year. Patel, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Atlanta, and a UF graduate, gave DeSantis $175,000.

Anita G. Zucker
Anita G. Zucker [ University of Florida ]

Anita Zucker, a UF graduate, is the billionaire CEO of a South Carolina chemicals manufacturer and the richest person in that state, according to Forbes. She gave DeSantis’ campaign $100,000 two months after the university Board of Governors chose her as a UF trustee in 2019.

The trustees have remained mostly silent on the gag orders, with Hosseini only saying the issue “is under review.” Hosseini, Zucker, Patel and Heavener did not respond to multiple requests for comment through the university.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in an email that “to suggest that UF as an institution is somehow politically aligned with or influenced by Governor DeSantis is absurd and baseless.”

“The executive branch has no reason to interfere in matters between the university administration and faculty, and that has not happened,” Pushaw said.

Previous governors have chosen campaign or party donors to positions that oversee state universities. The last Democrat to be elected governor, Lawton Chiles, appointed two of his former campaign treasurers and at least three major Democratic Party donors to the Board of Regents, a precursor to today’s Board of Governors, in the 1990s.

“Governors were always inclined to appoint people who had supported them,” said Dubose Ausley, a Tallahassee lawyer and former Board of Regents chair during the 1980s.

Universities and governors have long had a “symbiotic” relationship with big-pocketed donors, who are often sought after for their expertise and ability to raise money for their schools, said Peter Cruise, who runs the LeRoy Collins Public Ethics Academy at Florida Atlantic University. Their donations to the governor do not mean they can’t be good stewards of the university, he said.

“Does it appear unusual or unseemly to the public at large? Perhaps,” he said.

Cruise said he did think that, overall, the level of political intrusion into higher education is the highest he’s seen in his 35 years teaching in the profession.

“Academic freedom is under assault, and has been now for some decades all over the country,” he said. “These problems are not unique to Florida.”

Long history of controversy

Political meddling into Florida’s universities is supposed to be part of a bygone era.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the state Legislature launched a McCarthy-esque probe to find students and professors who were gay or sympathized with communism. Known as the Johns Committee after committee chairman Charley Johns, it was formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which found segregation unconstitutional.

The committee initially targeted the NAACP and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for involvement in bus boycotts, but spread to target gay or communist students and professors at UF and the University of South Florida. (An effort to formally apologize to victims of the Johns Committee has failed to pass the Legislature in recent years.)

In reaction, the Legislature created the Board of Regents in 1965. The new body was intended to act as a buffer between the politics of Tallahassee and the university system.

It didn’t always work. As governor in the 1980s, Bob Graham said micromanagement by legislators was the “single most vexing problem” for the State University System, and he said he watched regents lose their jobs for disagreeing with lawmakers. In 2001, the former university system Chancellor E.T. York wrote of instances of governors and powerful lawmakers meddling in academic departments, trying to get rid of particular professors, choosing university presidents or establishing unnecessary new universities.

The regents’ oversight went away in 2001, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush and lawmakers scrapped it in favor of a system that placed the universities under an education commissioner. It also created a board of trustees for each university.

The 10 university presidents unanimously opposed the legislation. Graham, who was a student at UF when the Johns Committee was investigating, was alarmed.

As a U.S. Senator for Florida, he took the unusual step of launching an effort to change the state Constitution to bring back the regents model. Under his proposed amendment, the university trustees were maintained but a new Board of Governors was created to oversee the university system and create a firewall between the schools and Tallahassee.

“The main purpose of the amendment was to try as much as possible to keep the universities out of politics,” said Robin Gibson, a lawyer and spokesperson for the committee that launched and led the effort.

The amendment passed in 2002 with approval from 60 percent of voters, but it didn’t end the delicate dance between politicians and universities. Since then, lawmakers have bypassed the Board of Governors to create a new university, tried to block some people from becoming university presidents and pushed a secretive application process for university presidents, to which faculty have routinely objected.

They also wrested control of setting tuition, with a 2013 state Supreme Court decision finding the Legislature — not the Board of Governors — responsible for setting rates.

This year, they passed a law requiring surveys to gauge the level of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on college campuses, a reflection of the longtime tensions between the conservatives in Tallahassee and liberal college campuses.

To Gibson, the issue of prohibiting professors from testifying as paid expert witnesses offends him more as a lawyer than as an advocate for academic independence. Expert witnesses merely present information to the benefit of the court, not to score political points. But the university seems to disagree, he said.

“Everything is political, and this is a wonderful example of that.”

Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.