As the flagship public university in the bellwether state of Florida, the University of Florida is often under the spotlight — with the result that controversies that occur at many universities sometimes appear bigger than they really are at UF.
Exacerbated by Florida’s political importance, these controversies inevitably make the headlines, but not the results of any subsequent review or resolution. This was vividly displayed last year, when a furor over UF’s response to the pandemic generated national news. This was followed by allegations of political influence calling into question academic freedom, research integrity and faculty hiring and tenure at UF.
As chair of the faculty senate and university president during this period, we have had different roles in governing the university and have not always agreed.
But we agree on this: Despite contrary media reports, the controversies over UF’s COVID response and accusations of political influence on academic freedom, research integrity and faculty hiring and tenure have been shown to have no merit.
Indeed, in the past year, faculty governance and university administration worked actively in partnership, as is UF’s tradition, in highly productive ways. The university set new records in philanthropy, research, student applications, technology transfer and growth in national stature, supported by our state Legislature, governor, Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, alumni, faculty, staff and students.
COVID posed a challenge to all institutions, and UF was no exception. Following CDC guidelines, UF Health established the award-winning “screen, test and protect” initiative to keep students, faculty and staff safe. There was controversy over UF being one of the nation’s first universities to fully open and not mandating vaccinations and masks, including a Faculty Senate vote of no-confidence in UF’s safety plans. Nearly two years later, it is clear that the screen, test and protect program was highly effective. The university safely held in-person classes, kept research labs open and continued clinical and extension services.
The furor over COVID was accompanied by a no less headline-generating controversy, touched off when UF denied requests by professors to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the State of Florida, was a party.
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This led to allegations in the press that the university was kowtowing to political influence from the governor’s office. The fact is, neither the governor’s office nor any other outside party was involved in, or had influence over, the decision. However, the provost and president immediately dealt with the situation within a week after first learning about the issue in the press. And, in partnership with the Faculty Senate, the administration implemented that same month a revised process for decisions on Conflict of Commitment, now one of the most robust in the nation.
Responding to the news reports, UF’s institutional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, announced it was sending a Special Committee to visit UF to review compliance with its academic freedom standards. This month, the accreditation commission found the university to be in full compliance with those standards.
Another allegation, reported anonymously to a Faculty Senate Committee, claimed that researchers were pressured to destroy or impede access to COVID research data. A committee of three distinguished faculty members was formed to investigate, and the committee found the allegation had no merit.
There were also allegations that UF bowed to political pressure to hire and grant tenure to Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the Florida surgeon general known for some controversial views on COVID. However, as a graduate of Harvard Medical School, with tenure at highly ranked UCLA, and with an extensive federally funded research portfolio, Dr. Ladapo met and exceeded our high bar for professional credentials. He was hired and tenured based on those credentials, not due to political pressure. UF College of Medicine faculty voted in support of tenure and the Board of Trustees unanimously approved his tenure, with the motion to approve by the faculty representative on the board.
As UF’s national stature grows, and as Florida gains in population and prominence, UF will only become more visible.
We have no doubt that we will face other accusations and controversies in the future. This past year has shown that a healthy and dynamic system of shared governance can facilitate the examination, discussion and resolution of complex issues in a transparent and thoughtful way. We share complete confidence that our university will continue to effectively and promptly deal with those issues in ways that will make UF and the state of Florida stronger.
David Bloom is University of Florida Faculty Senate chair 2021-2022, and Kent Fuchs is president of the University of Florida. Fuchs announced at the beginning of the year he would be stepping down to become a professor.