Firestorm over silent college professors in Florida grows

The University of Florida’s decision to ban three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has turned into a political and public relations storm, which could take some serious toll. magnitude as other professors consider moving forward with college stories. pressure.

Since Friday, when the university’s decision was disclosed in a Federal Court file, five other professors have said they have been barred from testifying or been ordered to omit mention of their academic positions in the statements of the court.

The body that accredits the university has opened an investigation into whether its ordinances violate long-established principles of academic freedom or involve “undue political influence.” On Monday, the university’s president and rector ordered a review of its conflict of interest policy, the rationale for decisions to silence professors.

“The University of Florida strongly supports its commitment to upholding our most sacred right as Americans, the right to free speech and the right of faculty members to academic freedom,” they said in a statement. “Nothing is more fundamental to our existence as an institution.”

A spokeswoman for Mr DeSantis said he had played no role in the university’s actions. “This is an internal UF problem and not the kind of thing the executive would be involved in,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said. “Governor DeSantis has always championed freedom of speech, open inquiry and diverse perspectives on college and university campuses.

Asked Wednesday about the role of the administration in the actions of the university, a spokeswoman for the university, Hessy Fernandez, replied with a single word: “No”.

Despite the denials, a legion of critics continued to say that the university’s actions bore the hallmarks of political interference. In each of the disclosed cases, the conflict of interest invoked to justify limiting faculty freedom of speech was that they supported legal challenges to the policies of the DeSantis administration.

“This creates an environment that puts intolerable pressure on universities and other institutions to comply with the political policies of this administration, that’s for sure,” said Dr Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, longtime professor and administrator. at the university’s College of Medicine. in Jacksonville. “I don’t think there are any questions about this.”

Dr Goldhagen, an expert in pediatrics, said he was denied permission to submit an affidavit this summer amid lawsuits challenging the DeSantis administration’s ban on imposing masks in schools. He said he still submitted a statement.

“I had no options, personally or professionally,” he said. “I’ve always made decisions based on what’s best for the kids.

A second university professor who was barred from participating in the mask prosecution declined to be named or to speak about the matter.

Dr Goldhagen’s disclosure fueled a controversy that sparked a flood of condemnations from academics and free speech experts. More than 80 professors who testify regularly in legal proceedings have accused the university of “serious violation of academic freedom and professors’ rights of expression.” A multitude of academic organizations have called on the university to back down. Florida Democrats in the House of Representatives demanded an explanation.

Universities have hardly ever tried to interfere with the roles of professors in litigation. In 2019, Plymouth State University in New Hampshire paid $ 350,000 to avoid a lawsuit brought by a professor who was fired after testifying for the defense in a contentious criminal case on a charge of sexual abuse. on children.

In 2016, a University of Florida professor claimed that state attorneys were seeking to force him to withdraw academic journal submissions that supported Georgia in a long-running water rights dispute.

As governor, Mr. DeSantis appoints six of the 13 trustees of the University of Florida, and the chairman of the board is a major Republican donor and advisor to DeSantis. The president, Morteza Hosseini, organized this fall for the university to hire and grant tenure to a California professor who the governor quickly appointed its surgeon general.

Mr DeSantis made a rare trip to Gainesville in September to announce the news that the University of Florida had been named one of the top five public universities in the annual rankings by US News & World Report.

But he also suggested that universities are an arm of the liberal political establishment that needs to be curtailed. In June, he signed a law requiring public universities to question both faculty and students about their political views, suggesting they are intolerant of conservative perspectives.

“It used to be that a college campus was a place where you were exposed to a lot of different ideas,” DeSantis said at a press conference after the law was signed. “Unfortunately, now the norm is that these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other points of view are rejected or even suppressed.

He also suggested that public funding of schools could be linked to survey results.

The professors’ silence controversy erupted on Friday, when a court file revealed that the university had banned three political science professors from offering expert testimony in a federal lawsuit challenging the country’s new election law. State. The law severely limits the use of ballot boxes, makes it more difficult to receive mail ballots and places new demands on voter registration campaigns.

Experts have reportedly provided evidence that the changes would affect voter turnout, especially among blacks. But university officials blocked them, saying testifying would constitute a “conflict of interest for the executive branch of the state of Florida” and for the university.

Four other professors at the university’s law school were told last year that they could not identify themselves as University of Florida academics in a forensic brief opposing a US law. State which raised obstacles to the restoration of the right to vote for the former criminals. The Miami Herald, which previously reported the actions, said that of the 93 professors nationwide who joined the brief, only those four were not including their college affiliations.

The University of Florida’s explanation of its actions has confused its critics. Officials said they relied on new conflict of interest guidelines released in November 2020, although law professors were told in the previous July that they could not join a court case. unless they omit their university affiliation.

In the case of the three political science professors, university officials said they did not restrict their rights to free speech or academic freedom, but only prohibited them from undertaking “a paid work contrary to the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida ”.

The spokesperson for Mr. DeSantis echoed this argument in her statement, saying that the Constitution “guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but that there is no right to enjoy speech” .

But pediatrics expert Dr Goldhagen said he was prohibited from submitting a statement to court in August even though he was not paid for it and was never asked if he was paid.

Experts on academic freedom and freedom of expression said the distinction between paid and unpaid statements was not legally relevant, noting that professors across the country had long been paid for expert testimony, even in the context of legal proceedings opposing the interests of the State.


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