The assault on academic freedom at the University of Florida is real, dangerous and spiraling out of control. President Kent Fuchs needs to get off the sidelines and decide: Will he stand behind his faculty in the pursuit of scholarship and speech or will he cave to Republicans in Tallahassee who suffer no dissent to their agenda and methods?
The crisis worsened Monday with the release of a report by a Faculty Senate committee that chronicled numerous examples of the university stifling academic speech. The panel was convened three weeks ago in response to UF barring three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit over new restrictions to Florida’s voting laws. While a national backlash prompted the university to reverse course, the case opened a floodgate of allegations that UF had chilled teaching and outside activities among its faculty in an effort to appease Republican lawmakers.
The panel reported a range of complaints. Faculty believed administrators were denying requests for outside participation based on “questions of race and ethnicity.” UF researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data as part of a collaborative project with an unidentified state agency. If speaking to the media, employees were told verbally “not to criticize the governor or UF policies related to COVID-19.” Experts in the medical school feared they were being frozen out from offering public health advice in the early stages of the pandemic and feared that state funding for UF “would be in jeopardy” if faculty contradicted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-mask policies.
Faculty members also complained “that websites were required to be changed, that course syllabi had to be restructured, and that use of the terms ‘critical’ and ‘race’ could not appear together in the same sentence or document,” lest it rouse Republican ire over “critical race theory,” the teaching of institutional racism. Faculty grew fearful of speaking in opposition to UF or state leaders, even on social media, and faculty who wrote op-eds for outside publications were instructed to scrub their UF titles and affiliations.
“Such a climate of self-censorship is chilling at an institution that strives to be considered among the nation’s most elite,” the report found. We expect better of Fuchs, whom we lauded when he took the job more than seven years ago, saying “UF wants to vault into the elite ... of public universities, and hiring a high-powered academic with a proven track record is a big step toward that goal.” He needs to lead — and now.
As the situation worsens, UF leaders have gone from defensive to outright denial. An in-house task force whitewashed the matter. The university is misrepresenting the dispute as an issue of professors being paid for work beyond their university responsibilities. And with Fuchs hunkered down behind emails and publicists, Mori Hosseini, the chair of the UF trustees’ board, has become the public face of damage control, which certainly hasn’t helped.
Hosseini unloaded during a trustees’ meeting Friday, insisting the university had done nothing wrong and issuing what amounted to an ultimatum to disgruntled faculty. “This will not stand. It must stop, and it will stop,” Hosseini declared, before launching into a testimonial for the governor, Senate president and House speaker.
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You don’t inspire confidence in your commitment to academic freedom by telling your employees and critics to shut up. UF is learning how quickly it can sour a reputation that took so long to build. Fuchs needs to take a stand; administrators and faculty alike are yearning for a display of leadership. The university’s mission is to promote truth and knowledge, not a political party or platform, and academic freedom is essential in providing this service to the state. It’s a simple concept that university presidents in Florida and elsewhere have defended for eons. Florida’s flagship university should either stand foursquare behind it or stop pretending that this pillar of democracy is alive and well in Gainesville.
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.