UF’s big mistake on academic freedom | Editorial
Barring three professors from testifying in a voting rights case is exactly the wrong thing to do.
UF professors Daniel Smith, left, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald
UF professors Daniel Smith, left, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald [ Provided ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 1, 2021|Updated Nov. 1, 2021

By any reasonable definition, “academic freedom” should mean that University of Florida professors could testify in a voting rights court case in which they are, quite literally, experts. They have the First Amendment right to do so, and they should have the academic freedom to do so, too. It makes sense. But in Florida things don’t always make sense these days.

The University of Florida is trying to bar three political science professors — Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin — from testifying against Senate Bill 90, which puts new restrictions on in-person and mail-in voting. The three are expert witnesses for plaintiffs who hope to overturn the new law, arguing that it is unconstitutional and designed to suppress voting by minorities.

What is UF’s official reason for rejecting the professors’ requests? “Outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida,’’ wrote the dean of UF’s college of arts and sciences. In other words, if it’s bad for the governor, it’s bad for UF? That is a horrible line of thinking. And it’s a new one for UF.

Smith is the chair of the political science department and an expert on elections. So is McDonald. With UF’s permission, they personally have testified as paid experts over the years in exactly these kinds of cases. In fact, UF’s own newsletters have lauded them, saying “Smith and McDonald have established themselves as invaluable resources for informed media coverage of the 2016 election, affirming the University of Florida’s reputation as a relevant and diligent institution of higher learning.” That was then. This is now.

Austin is a tenured professor who studies African American political behavior. In a statement, she said, “I refuse to teach my students that it is important to fight for voting and civil rights and then not fight for those rights myself. My father was born in 1938 and my mother in 1940 in Robinsonville, Mississippi. They couldn’t even think about voting for many years and lived in poverty as sharecroppers until they moved to the city of Memphis as young adults. They would be outraged if they knew that their daughter has a Ph.D., is a tenured professor, is among only 2% of Black female full professors in the nation, but is now refusing to fight to protect voting rights.”

This is a bad look for UF — and for academic freedom. Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is a self-described conservative who testified as an expert witness a generation ago in Florida civil rights cases for the NAACP. Those cases resulted in the first Black members of Congress being elected in Florida in generations. When he heard of UF’s ham-fisted action, he said, “I guess this means that I and other scholars should not have testified in previous years? This is what scholars are supposed to do.”

UF’s blunder made national news all weekend with critical coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education. This comes not long after UF proudly proclaimed that it had climbed to No. 5 in the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of public universities.

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It’s not hard to guess what’s going on, a combination of political pressure and some state funding hanging in the balance. UF now says that “if the professors wish to (be expert witnesses) pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they would be free to do so.” But that’s beside the point, given the university’s original claim that their testimony is against the state’s interest. How does pay change that? It also smacks of a desperate, 11th-hour attempt to justify a wrongheaded decision that goes against UF’s own precedents and a pillar of academic freedom.

UF President Kent Fuchs brought serious academic chops to the job when he arrived. He knew he had a lot to learn about Florida’s political environment. Early on, he even joked with the Times Editorial Board that when he spoke with another Florida public university president, a former politician, they agreed they could learn from each other — one could give tutorials on operating in a hyper-political world, the other about some nuances of higher education.

Let’s hope UF’s president, who has done so much good, didn’t learn the lessons too well. He has the ability to fix this. There is still time to get this right, to admit a mistake and to make academic freedom the core principle it should be at the state’s flagship university. Otherwise, everyone loses, and that No. 5 ranking might be, as they say in sports, one and done.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.