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UF reversing course to allow testimony from professors

Last month, university official told professors that because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state would be harmful.
University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs.
University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs.
Published Nov. 5
Updated Nov. 6

TALLAHASSEE — The University of Florida announced Friday it will no longer bar three political science professors from serving as paid expert witnesses in a voting-rights case against the state, reversing course on a decision that put the state’s flagship university under intense scrutiny for a week.

In a universitywide email, UF President Kent Fuchs said the professors would be allowed to offer their expert testimony, regardless of whether they are paid or not, as long as they do the work on their own time and do not use university resources.

Related: UF professors file federal lawsuit alleging ‘stifling of faculty speech’

The state’s flagship university continues to vet how it will respond to future requests from professors who want to serve as expert witnesses in cases that challenge a state position, Fuchs said in an email, first reported by the Alligator, an independent, student-run newspaper and website. The university has restricted at least eight professors from participating in such cases in the last year, the Times/Herald found earlier this week.

Without a change to its policies, the attorneys representing the three political science professors — Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin — said Friday that the professors continue to assess their options.

“While the University of Florida reversed course and allowed our clients to testify in this particular case, the fact remains that the university curtailed their First Amendment rights and academic freedoms, and as long as the university’s policy remains, those rights and freedoms are at risk,” the professors’ attorneys, Paul Donnelly and David A. O’Neil, said in a statement.

“We are continuing to assess our options.”

In the face of criticism

The university’s decision to bar professors from offering expert testimony in cases against the state came under intense scrutiny a week ago, when The New York Times first reported the restriction

University officials told the professors that because the university is a state institution, their participation in a case against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration would be “adverse” to the university’s interests.

DeSantis has maintained he had nothing to do with the decision.

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

In a statement Thursday night, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said that any suggestion that “UF as an institution is somehow politically aligned with or influenced by Gov. 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. “It is surprising that this is even a story, frankly, because we’ve been clear and consistent from day one — as has UF — that the governor did not influence the university’s policy or how the university administration applies their policy with faculty.”

The university decision has faced mounting backlash from faculty members across the nation and the United Kingdom, faculty union leaders, and Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation.

And, earlier this week, it prompted the body that sets the university’s accreditation to investigate the school for potentially violating “academic freedom” and “undue political influence” standards.

Amid the pushback, the university modified its position Monday to say that Smith, McDonald and Austin would be allowed to participate in a case challenging the voting laws only if they did not get paid.

Related: UF faculty union calls for boycotts over academic freedom

That change was not enough for faculty union leaders, who on Friday called on donors to withhold contributions until the school takes steps to affirm its support for academic freedom and assert its independence from political influence.

Five others face restrictions, too

About an hour later, Fuchs sent out the universitywide email announcing the decision to reverse course on the decision involving Smith, McDonald and Austin.

Fuchs and the university, however, have not commented on other instances in which the school has restricted professors’ participation as a result of its conflict of interest policy, which the university revised in November 2020.

For instance, last year, four University of Florida law professors who wanted to sign a “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit challenging a new felons voting law were told that they could not identify themselves as university faculty members in the filing because it involved “an action against the state.”

And in August, university officials told a UF professor of pediatrics in August that he couldn’t work on cases that challenged the state’s ban on mask mandates because participating in lawsuits against DeSantis’ administration would “create a conflict” for the university.

Fuch said he is waiting for a recommendation from a recently convened task force to assess how the university should respond when “employees request approval to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party.”

He said he has asked for a preliminary recommendation on the matter by Nov. 29.

Miami Herald staff writer Jimena Tavel and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. This is a breaking news story and will be updated. Miami Herald staff writer Jimena Tavel contributed.