Florida professors cite fear of state politicians on campus

·4 min read
University Free Speech-Florida (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
University Free Speech-Florida (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

University of Florida professors say fear of upsetting state politicians pervades the campus to the point that race-related references have been edited out of course materials and faculty members have been restricted from participating in outside activities that challenge the priorities of the governor’s administration, according to a new faculty report.

The report prepared by a committee of professors for the school’s Faculty Senate was released this week. It said professors and researchers are reluctant to speak out about university efforts to restrict research or offer unpopular viewpoints out of fear of retaliation, losing their jobs or other punishment.

“To a certain extent, faculty often engaged in self-censorship and chose not to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of retaliation,” the report said.

University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said Tuesday that the school had no comment on the report.

The report released Monday comes as the university has been accused over the past two months of stifling academic freedom in order to appease state politicians. A grievance filed last week by the faculty union says administrators told faculty members they couldn’t used the words “critical” and “race” together in describing a new doctoral concentration of study, out of fear that it would antagonize state lawmakers who are contemplating a bill to ban critical race theory in state government.

Critical race theory is a framework developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s that centers on the view that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and serves to maintain the dominance of whites in society.

The university in October prohibited three professors from testifying in a lawsuit challenging a new election law that critics believe restricts voting rights. A school official said that such testimony would put the school in conflict with the administration of Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, which pushed the election law. The university reversed that decision last month.

A U.S. House subcommittee and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges are separately investigating the university’s actions.

During a Board of Trustees meeting last Friday, board chairman Morteza “Mori” Hosseini said faculty had been taking advantage of their positions to get outside jobs. More than half of the university’s trustees are appointed by the governor.

“I am speaking about faculty members who use their positions of authority to improperly advocate personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others,” Hosseini said. “To this I say — enough. This behavior is unacceptable. It is disrespectful not only to the taxpayers of Florida, whose hard-earned dollars pay faculty salaries, but it is also disrespectful to these faculty members’ hard-working colleagues — the ones who are doing their jobs honestly and fulfilling their missions.”

The committee of professors preparing the report for the university’s Faculty Senate sought confidential comments from other faculty members about their experiences. Following passage of a state law last year, the university centralized how professors report outside work and added a layer of scrutiny to the approval process.

Professors told the committee that they had been instructed verbally not to criticize the governor or school policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic when talking to reporters. Health and medical professors were told not to mention their university affiliation in op-ed pieces or commentary and not to criticize the pandemic policies of DeSantis’ administration out of fear it would jeopardize funding for facilities expansion. DeSantis’ administration has opposed mask and vaccine mandates, as well as further COVID-19 related restrictions.

There were also reports that state officials had created barriers to and delayed publication of COVID-19 data which were collected collaboratively between state government and the university, according to the report.

Professors told the committee that the university’s policies were out of line with peer institutions when it claimed intellectual property rights over research conducted by faculty members hired as paid outside consultants.

In addition, websites were changed and syllabi were restructured so that the terms “critical” and “race” could not appear in the same sentence, and administrators asked faculty members to alter or delay certain curricular proposals, professors told the committee.

“In reported cases, the reason for such requests appeared to be that such content conflicted with a position taken by political actors or factions within the state government,” the report said. ”Such a climate of self-censorship is chilling at an institution that strives to be considered among the nation’s most elite.”

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