During a Tuesday town hall meeting where all three Democratic candidates for Florida governor criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried took it a step further and claimed the governor was forcing university trustees to donate to his campaign in exchange for appointments.
“Our current board of trustees across our state were required to give a campaign contribution to Ron DeSantis, the amount of $100,000,” Fried said. “And if they didn’t give him the campaign contribution they were not reappointed to the boards. That is what we are dealing with here in the state of Florida under this governor.”
At the roundtable, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo all agreed that the state of Florida’s education under the current administration was not free and open.
It’s been widely reported that those who sit on boards of trustees for universities give campaign donations to those who appoint them. In November, the Times reported that four members of the University of Florida’s board of trustees have contributed a total of $661,800 over the last few years to DeSantis’ campaign.
But Fried’s allegations went further. She charged that contributions like these were required by DeSantis as a condition for remaining on the board. When asked by the Times for specifics, Fried’s campaign spokesman Andrew Godinich issued a statement that failed to provide any proof. Instead, the statement made the general complaint that DeSantis’ appointments are stacked with donors and the boards of trustees are no different, but with no mention that the contributions were required. When asked by the Times if Fried stood by her allegation, Godinich replied that she did.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, denied Fried’s claim and mentioned the recent Florida Commission on Ethics’ finding of probable cause that Fried violated Florida financial disclosure laws.
“Nikki Fried is a bald-faced liar, and her false claim that smears the good reputations of Florida board of trustees is just another example of this and Floridians know it,” Ferré wrote in an email.
Experts say the relationship between donors and university appointments stretch back decades, and other governors have also appointed supporters.
Tuesday’s town hall meeting was hosted by United Faculty of Florida, a union representing higher education faculty. It was held to discuss higher education, freedom of speech and pay at a time when questions about those issues have been raised at the University of Florida. DeSantis was invited to the forum in a Dec. 1 email but didn’t respond, according to the union president, Andrew Gothard.
“I assumed that he was not interested in joining us,” Gothard said.
Ferré said neither the DeSantis campaign nor the Florida GOP received notice for the forum.
In the past few weeks, UF’s idea of academic neutrality has been marred by news that the university barred multiple professors in different cases from serving as expert witnesses in cases challenging state laws, that university officials fast-tracked the hiring of Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, and a report that researchers felt pressured to destroy COVID-19 data.
Taddeo said that, though Republicans like to accuse Democrats of being socialists, the accusations against the administration show they’re the ones against freedom in education.
“They’re the ones that are trying to suppress the freedom of speech and interject themselves into what can and cannot be taught,” Taddeo said.
Crist, who earlier sent a letter to the Board of Governors demanding an investigation on a range of issues related to UF, leaned on his record.
The former governor of Florida, then a Republican, said he has a proven history of defending teachers. In 2010, Crist vetoed a bill that would have changed teacher pay, a move at odds with the GOP at the time. He also said he helped save the jobs of thousands of teachers during the recession.
“I’m running for governor to do so as I’ve done before, and put our teachers, faculty and students first,” Crist said.
Fried touted her status as the only statewide-elected Democrat and said she has the most firsthand knowledge of the education system. Fried serves on the board of trustees of the UF Levin College of Law and was a former student body president at the University of Florida. She said she’d want to restructure how higher education is governed, and said that when the state Board of Regents dissolved in 2001 and was replaced with the Board of Governors, it became a mechanism for appointing political allies.
“There’s no elected official in the state of Florida who knows about higher education like I do,” Fried said.
Fried also subtly referenced part of what she sees as her defining edge over Crist by saying it was time for something new.
Taddeo highlighted her ability to secure the South Florida Hispanic vote and said her own personal experience waiting tables, working as a teaching assistant and striving for higher education has shown her its value.
“You and your students have paved the way in spite of our elected officials trying to stop you and put all kinds of obstacles in the way,” Taddeo said.
All spoke out against HB233, a bill signed into law by DeSantis that is meant to promote intellectual freedom, but which critics say was meant to silence dissenting views from the state government. Leaders at the University of Florida have said pressure has been mounting around the bill, and a professor recently filed a grievance to say the university wouldn’t approve a concentration with the words “critical” and “race” near each other out of fear of offending the state. And all spoke about wanting to better fund the system and improve pay for teachers and graduate assistants.
Of the three, Crist is leading in cash with about $3.5 million on hand between his campaign account and political committee, Friends of Charlie Crist. Fried follows with about $3.3 million available between her campaign and political committee, Florida Consumers First. Taddeo, the last candidate of the three to announce, trails with about $617,000 available between her campaign and political committee, Fight Back Florida.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has about $67 million available just through his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.