UF rushed Ladapo tenure vote, downplayed COVID-19 controversy, letter alleges

“Our votes were based on incomplete and faulty information,” read the letter, which was never sent to UF administrators.
The new State Surgeon General and Florida Department of Health Secretary Joe Ladapo, right, speaks at a news conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, in Kissimmee  on Sept. 22.
The new State Surgeon General and Florida Department of Health Secretary Joe Ladapo, right, speaks at a news conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, in Kissimmee on Sept. 22.
Published Dec. 17, 2021|Updated Dec. 17, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — As they rushed to install Gov. Ron DeSantis’ soon-to-be appointed surgeon general to a tenured position, University of Florida administrators downplayed controversial views held by the doctor in communications with faculty, according to a letter obtained by the Times/Herald.

Some faculty members who voted on whether to grant tenure to Dr. Joseph Ladapo were not aware that his résumé included published editorials and media appearances “that directly contradict sound scientific evidence,” the letter states.

They didn’t have a chance to review his teaching evaluations, either, the letter alleges — contrary to university policy.

“Our votes were based on incomplete and faulty information,” the letter reads.

At the time of the vote, Ladapo was a tenured University of California, Los Angeles professor who had authored dozens of peer-reviewed research papers and received more than $1.87 million in research funding from various grant programs. University administrators noted Ladapo’s impressive track record when they asked his prospective colleagues to vote on whether to give him tenure at UF, the letter notes.

But administrators did not note that Ladapo had also published a column expressing skepticism that vaccines were safe, or that he had promoted unproven COVID-19 treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

Related: Four times Florida's new surgeon general bucked the coronavirus consensus

Ladapo’s promotion of a hands-off approach to COVID-19 echoed that of DeSantis. Over the summer, the DeSantis administration stopped pushing vaccination — which he once championed — and tailored the state’s COVID-19 response around monoclonal antibody treatments for people who have been exposed to the virus.

The letter raising concerns about Ladapo was written by professors who serve in UF’s Department of Medicine and believed the tenure process was rushed.

It represents the latest flashpoint in a showdown between administrators and faculty members over academic freedom at Florida’s flagship university during a pandemic that has exacerbated the nation’s partisan divide.

Three professors confirmed to the Times/Herald that they helped craft the document, which circulated among more than a dozen members of the faculty but was never sent to the administration. The Times/Herald has agreed not to name the professors involved in drafting the letter because of their concerns about job security.

UF Health spokesperson Ken Garcia did not respond to questions about the allegations in the letter. In a statement, he pointed out that the faculty vote was only an “initial step” toward granting tenure upon hire, and that most of the professors’ responses had been “favorable.”

“Governor DeSantis does not interfere with the internal matters of UF,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw wrote in an emailed statement Thursday in response to questions about the professors’ concerns they would be targeted over the letter. She said the idea that the governor’s office would attempt to silence criticism from faculty is “absurd” and noted that “UF professors constantly criticize the governor and his policies in public statements.”

‘Evaluated like any other candidate’

Faculty members were told in mid-September they had 48 hours to vote on Ladapo’s tenure. Although they were given Ladapo’s résumé — which included his controversial op-eds — the rushed vote left them unable to take the time to review the materials, the letter says.

Although nonbinding, the faculty vote is taken into consideration when the university decides whether to award a professor tenure upon hire. Professors weren’t asked to weigh in on the hire itself.

The week after the vote, DeSantis tapped Ladapo as Florida’s next surgeon general, a position that helps set and promote public health policies and leads the state’s Department of Health.

In addition to that job, UF administrators made room for Ladapo to hold another position, that of a tenured professor of medicine. Between the two jobs, Ladapo is set to make $437,000 per year.

Dated Oct. 11, the letter was drafted nearly three weeks after DeSantis named Ladapo surgeon general. It was addressed to three administrators, including David Bloom, the chair of the Faculty Senate who sits on the Board of Trustees, and Joe Glover, the provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.

One of the professors involved in the letter said they would not have signed the final product because it focused too much on what could be perceived as ideological differences between Ladapo and its authors — and not enough on the way the university violated its own tenure process.

Garcia said that Ladapo went through a rigorous hiring process that involved meetings with several Department of Medicine faculty, including the department’s chairperson, Jamie Conti.

“Dr. Ladapo completed the standard process candidates follow in applying for a vacancy.” Garcia’s statement read, in part. “He was evaluated as we would any other candidate.”

In response to a Times/Herald inquiry, the university provided a list of 47 tenured professors in the Department of Medicine, each of whom had the chance to vote on Ladapo’s tenure. The Times/Herald reached out to each professor. Most did not respond, and none agreed to speak on the record.

‘Exceptional circumstances’

In order to achieve tenure, College of Medicine professors are subjected to multiple rounds of review from all levels of their department. The process is meticulously outlined in a series of university guidelines.

The system is structured this way because tenure is supposed to be difficult to achieve. It’s intended for the most outstanding members of the academic world, offering those who achieve it both status and security. Tenured professors are harder to fire than their nontenured colleagues.

Before he took the Florida job, Ladapo was already one of the select few. He had achieved tenure at UCLA.

Still, UF offered to grant Ladapo tenure upon appointment, which, according to UF guidelines, is supposed to be offered under “exceptional circumstances.

Those guidelines go on to say that requests for tenure upon hire, which are submitted to the provost, should include “the vote on tenure of the appropriate department/unit faculty.”

A Sept. 16 letter from UF administrators offering Ladapo his university job claimed that the president and provost had already “approved a request” for Ladapo to be given tenure upon hire.

The letter was sent before the faculty had finished voting.

Garcia, the UF Health spokesperson, said Ladapo’s offer letter referred to the provost approving Ladapo “to go through the process of tenure upon hire.”

“This process is still underway,” Garcia said.

Board of trustees at the center once again

UF’s interest in Ladapo was evident at least by Sept. 1, when UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini sent an email to David Nelson, the president of UF Health. In that short message, Hosseini attached Ladapo’s résumé.

Two days later, Nelson was writing to colleagues about recruiting Ladapo, the “potential FL Surgeon General.”

“Joe, Kent, and Mori are all aware and very supportive,” Nelson wrote, referring to Joseph Glover, the university provost; Kent Fuchs, UF’s president; and Hosseini — a DeSantis ally and top donor.

Those emails were first reported by USA Today Network-Florida.

In the months since Ladapo was hired, the university has been at the center of a debate over academic freedom. At least four professors have said they were barred from testifying as expert witnesses in court cases in which their opinions differed from that of top Republican state leaders.

Earlier this month, Hosseini waded into that controversy at a board of trustees meeting. He argued that a “small number” of the university’s faculty “used their position to advocate personal, political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.”

After those comments, a committee of the university’s Faculty Senate released a report alleging that some professors were told not to criticize DeSantis’ COVID-19 policies when talking to reporters, and that others felt pressure to destroy coronavirus data. The latter claim is being investigated by the university.

Related: UF will investigate allegations of pressure to destroy COVID-19 data

Pushaw said the report included “zero evidence that Governor DeSantis or anyone connected to the governor’s office has exerted or attempted to exert improper influence on UF.”

Now, according to the faculty letter, some of the surgeon general’s new colleagues are contending that the university, hoping to bring a DeSantis appointee aboard, created a process that “seriously interfered” with their ability to “completely and accurately assess Dr. Joseph Ladapo’s eligibility for tenure at the University of Florida.”

Requests for tenure upon hire are “normally” sent to the Board of Trustees for a decision at the first meeting after a candidate accepts a UF position, the university’s tenure guidelines say. That hasn’t happened in Ladapo’s case yet.

The Board of Trustees met Sept. 27, 10 days after Ladapo signed his offer letter. Meeting minutes show they discussed two candidates for tenure upon hire at that meeting. Ladapo was not among them.

Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this story.