The University of Florida begins a new school year this month with some unfinished business. A new survey suggests that many faculty members haven’t moved on from the university’s mistake in self-censoring its own campus last year. The findings are a reminder that reputations are critical to institutions of higher learning — for their ability to attract talent, raise funds and improve their state and communities.
The 32-question survey was sent to 2,000 faculty and yielded 623 responses, and overall it painted a sobering picture of faculty morale, as the Times’ Divya Kumar reported. Many members said they would leave UF if they could, and a majority expressed little confidence in the university’s leadership. Nearly half had concerns about academic freedom. More than two-thirds said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that they could “openly express a dissenting opinion about the administration’s policies without fear of reprisal.” About the same percentage expressed concerns that administrators were not held accountable.
More than 63% said they would leave for “a comparable job elsewhere” if personal factors weren’t keeping them in Gainesville. Nearly three-fourths expressed concerns over whether the UF board of trustees “ensures that the university is free from undue political influence.” About 70% expressed a lack of confidence that the board will select a new president — to replace the outgoing Kent Fuchs — who “prioritizes academic, scholarly and faculty interests.” And the blowback was being expressed even from departments like the College of Engineering that typically steer clear of politics. Talk about the coach losing the locker room.
Meera Sitharam, vice president of the United Faculty of Florida union chapter at UF, said she was “taken aback” by the results. Really? UF abandoned a core principle of academic freedom by barring or restricting some faculty members from involving themselves in politically contentious lawsuits against the state. It was a total cave by Florida’s flagship university in an effort to avoid the wrath of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature. While the university eventually reversed course, and put some other safeguards in place to protect free speech, the repercussions obviously linger.
This is bad for what it says about the employees’ stake in UF’s success, about the vibe on campus and for the message it sends to would-be hires, philanthropists and research partners. UF could take a big step toward rebuilding confidence by using its search for a new president to underscore the importance of academic freedom. Mori Hosseini, the chairman of the board of trustees, made matters worse during the faculty crackdown by downplaying its significance and blaming the media. He needs to better appreciate the shared mission of the university community and the tradition and value of diversity and independence in higher education.
Of course, a new law that DeSantis signed in March largely closing these presidential searches from public view won’t help ease suspicions. But a new academic year provides a fresh slate for setting a better tone. The hiring of a new president is an opportunity to hit the refresh button on relations between faculty and administrators. UF leaders took the university’s reputation for granted. They should recommit to an institution that belongs to the public, not one governor, one legislator or a wayward trustee.
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