The University of Florida’s refusal to stand up for academic freedom is absolutely shameful. At least five more cases emerged this week where UF blocked or restricted its own professors from engaging in disputes that involve the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor’s demand for fealty is already over-the-top. But the university cheapened its name and undermined its role in education and Florida’s democracy by contributing to this climate of political fear.
The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported last week that UF refused to allow three political science professors to continue to serve as expert witnesses in a case that challenges a new, restrictive state voting law championed by DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-led Legislature. Professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, two of whom have previously served as expert witnesses in cases against the state, were told in emails in October that their requests to serve as experts would now be rejected because activities that pose a conflict to the governor “create a conflict for the University of Florida.” In other words, angering the governor isn’t worth the risk.
The Times/Herald reported Tuesday that UF restricted five other faculty members in politically contentious lawsuits against the state. Last year, the dean of UF’s law school told four professors who wanted to sign a “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit contesting a new felons voting law that they could not identify themselves as university faculty members because it would be challenging a state position. In August, university officials told a UF pediatrics professor that he couldn’t work on two cases challenging the state’s ban on mask mandates, saying his participation would “create a conflict” for the university.
Since when did Florida’s flagship university become Ron DeSantis’ press office? And in what bizarre world do educational institutions tell teachers not to teach? The university tried to spin its decision, saying it objected only to requests for these employees “to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests.” But pay isn’t the issue; it’s that UF has censored speech to mollify the partisans who control state government.
Free speech and academic freedom apply broadly, but it’s worth remembering that the issues involved here — voting, mask mandates — have been among the most consequential facing Floridians. Few decisions have generated more public debate in Florida in recent years than the Republicans’ move to limit voting rights for felons and to restrict access to the ballot. And DeSantis’ battle against mask mandates to control COVID-19, which became a proxy war with the federal government, continues to carry public health and financial implications for the state.
UF’s abandonment of a core principle of higher education was strike 1. Strike 2 was its failure to admit the mistake and its clumsy attempt to shut down criticism. UF officials said they would convene a task force to review the university’s conflict of interest policy. That’s a tired dodge that crisis managers use to buy time and deflect attention. To their credit, faculty members are speaking out, Democrats from Florida’s congressional delegation have written the university expressing “profound disappointment,” and the body that sets the accreditation for UF said it would investigate to determine whether standards for “academic freedom” and “undue political influence” were violated.
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UF needs to realize that this is a loser, and that it sends a backwater image from a university that has worked hard to change the image of higher education in the south. UF should reverse course and work immediately to restore the public faith it squandered by forgetting its purpose and place.
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.