The University of Florida group tasked to review the university’s conflicts-of-interest policies, following a national uproar when the school initially barred three professors from testifying as paid expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, determined Tuesday they will answer two questions: When should UF allow professors to serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits, and what role does faculty have in reviewing these requests?
UF President Kent Fuchs appointed the seven members of the task force last week to quell the uproar, which centered on the professors’ First Amendment rights, and examine the school’s policies. He said he needs initial recommendations from the group by Nov. 29.
“That’s about 20 days from now, so it’s not a lot of time to work on this, but that’s what it is,” said UF Provost Joe Glover, chair of the task force. He noted the task force’s work was “very important to the university and important to the president.”
The state’s flagship university and country’s No. 5 public university, according to U.S. News & World Report, made national news last week when it denied the requests of the three political science professors — Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin — from being paid as expert witnesses in a lawsuit filed against the state over Senate Bill 90, a new Florida law that restricts voting access.
UF said their testimony could pose a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida and create a conflict for the University of Florida.” The New York Times broke the story.
On Friday, as protests mounted among legal scholars, university faculty and the agency that accredits the school said it would launch an investigation, Fuchs announced he would seek a policy reversal. In a letter to the UF community, he said he asked the school’s Conflict of Interest Office to allow the testimony of the professors “regardless of personal compensation, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.’’
Later Friday, the three professors filed a federal lawsuit against Fuchs, Glover and the university’s board of trustees, contending their First Amendment rights were violated. They are asking the court to strike down the UF policy that led the school to ban their testimony.
The task force — which includes UF experts in journalism, law, business and medicine — will meet for an hour three times each week, for a tentative total of seven times in the next two weeks and a half.
Gary Wimsett, the assistant vice president for conflicts of interest at UF, joined the inaugural meeting, despite not serving on the task force. Glover said he invited him in case the group wanted to ask him anything.
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Definition needed on expert testimony, other legal issues
Laura Rosenbury, dean of the UF Levin College of Law and a member of the task force, said the group should look at the differences between two types of scenarios: expert witness testimony either on the defense or prosecution side as it relates to litigation where the state is one of the direct parties involved — and testimony on either side in which the state is not a direct party, but a “state actor” or a “matter of public concern” is involved.
“There’s a lot to consider even within this narrow question that the president set forth initially,” she said.
Clay Calvert, a UF law and journalism professor, said the task force should then discuss the nature of the specific process in which professors will request approval before serving as witnesses in a lawsuit.
The group needs to figure out, among other details, who will make the ultimate decision (including whether faculty will be involved), how transparent the process will be, how long it will take and whether it will permit any appeal.
Currently, UF can take 30 days to examine the outside activity requests, but the median review time is about 10 days, Wimsett said. Hub Brown, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications, wondered if UF could institute a fast-track route for time-sensitive requests.
Both Rosenbury and Calvert, who volunteered to lead the next conversations and provide insight from the legal perspective, said the task force needs to interpret basic concepts first.
“I don’t think there are clear definitions right now in the written policies at least, about what is a conflict of interest, what is an outside activity,” Rosenbury said.
Rosenbury also suggested the task force read a document put together by the Legal Information Center at the UF law school on the conflict-of-interest policies from the top 20 public universities in the country.
In the long term, Calvert asked the task force to consider more than just expert testimony.
“I think there is a larger question beyond simply expert testimony here. It would also be commentary to the media, signing onto amicus briefs, friend of the courts, any time in which a professor acting as a private citizen, speaking out in a matter of public concern, is involved,” Calvert said.
“I think we need to address that more broadly than simply expert testimony, because those I think issues lie close behind or closely tied to this,” he said.
Who are the members of UF task force?
- UF Provost Joe Glover
- Katie Vogel Anderson, clinical associate professor at the UF College of Pharmacy and a former chair of the UF Faculty Senate
- Hub Brown, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications
- Clay Calvert, professor of law and professor of journalism and communications, as well as a Brechner Eminent Scholar and Director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project
- Terra DuBois, UF chief compliance, ethics and privacy officer
- John Kraft, professor and Susan Cameron Chair of International Business at the UF Warrington College of Business
- Laura Rosenbury, dean of the UF Levin College of Law
BY JIMENA TAVEL, Herald staff writer