Survey of UF faculty finds academic concerns, willingness to leave for job elsewhere

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A recent survey of University of Florida faculty shows that concerns over academic freedom persist despite efforts by administrators to address issues raised over the past year and calm fears.

The survey found that more than 83% of respondents strongly disagree with the statement that the UF Board of Trustees ensures the university is free from undue political influence. Only 6% agreed with that statement.

The survey was conducted by the United Faculty of Florida, the union that represents about 2,000 professors on the Gainesville campus. It was conducted from March to April and received 623 responses — or 31% of the UFF-UF membership. There are more than 5,700 faculty at UF.

Faculty also said they would leave UF if they were offered a comparable job somewhere else, with 47% strongly agreeing and another 24% agreeing somewhat. That's not a new sentiment, however. In 2016 — the last time the survey was conducted — a similar percentage of the faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said the same thing.

Faculty say academic freedom compromised

While the survey shows a majority of faculty feel they are able to freely conduct research, 52% said they don't believe they can exercise academic freedom on and off campus or use their expertise for the public good.

More than 75% of respondents disagreed with the statement that members of the Board of Trustees and administrators are adequately vetted for political and financial conflicts of interest.

UF administrators successfully dispelled concerns from an accreditation agency that undue political influence is exerted over academic freedom, a charge raised last fall when three professors were denied permission to serve as paid experts in a lawsuit against the state.

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The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges notified UF in November that it would investigate whether its denial last year of three professors' requests to serve as paid experts in a voting rights lawsuit violated standards for academic freedom and undue political influence.

In June, it released a report saying measures taken by administrators since allegations were raised are sufficient to meet its standards.

It was one of several allegations last fall that UF administrators had allowed political influence from Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration to dictate academic policies and hiring.

UF President Kent Fuchs recently wrote an opinion column, co-authored by former Faculty Senate President David Bloom, arguing the allegations were overblown or without merit.

At the start of the year, Fuch's announced plans to step down as president and return to the classroom as a professor. A search committee is developing a list of finalists to replace him, but that process is closed from public view due to a new state law.

"I understand the concerns of many faculty," said Amanda Phalin, chair of the UF Faculty Senate and a member of the UF Board of Trustees.

"I am also following the presidential search process closely ... I have great confidence in the search committee and search firm. I also remain committed to ensuring that faculty voices are heard and listened to via active and constructive engagement," she said in an emailed statement.

Cynthia Roldán Hernández, director of strategic communications for UF, said administrators have not yet reviewed the survey so are not able to speak to its specifics.

"Generally speaking, however, the university has repeatedly expressed its support for the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of our faculty," she said in email Monday.

"Additionally, we routinely engage faculty directly when it comes to crafting policies that are consistent with those of other public universities in the state of Florida," the statement said.

Survey returns after pandemic pause

UFF-FL has conducted a faculty survey of working conditions on campus since 2013.

"Things were quite bad in 2012 in the middle of all sorts of budget cuts," said Meera Sitharam, professor in the College of Computer & Information Science & Engineering and an organizer of the survey.

"They improved slowly through 2015," she said, after which the survey was paused because Fuchs had just arrived as president of UF.

"It didn't quite make sense to ask how the administration is doing just as he was setting things up during his honeymoon period," Sitharam added. "We wanted to resume it in 2020; that was the plan, but didn't happen until this year."

"I think the real anger started in 2020 to 2021 over the response to covid," she said.

Several questions were added this year in response to concerns over COVID-19 safety measures and academic freedom.

When asked whether they agreed with the university's handling of public health during the pandemic, nearly 50% strongly disagreed and another 18% disagreed somewhat.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: University of Florida faculty union finds broad dissatisfaction