Kent Fuchs to step down as University of Florida president

President to leave amid political interference by Republican governor, after strong record of student, faculty and research growth since 2015

January 6, 2022
Source: University of Florida
Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida

The president of the University of Florida, Kent Fuchs, has announced plans to step down in the coming year, amid growing controversies over political interference in the flagship campus by the state’s Republican governor.

Professor Fuchs, delivering the news in a videotaped message to the university community, said he would remain in office until his replacement is found and then take a sabbatical before returning to campus as a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“I look forward to the time when I can hand the baton to the next president,” he said.

Professor Fuchs made the announcement on the first day of the spring semester, and just days after a federal judge rejected the university’s bid to throw out a lawsuit brought by three professors who were blocked by his administration from testifying against their state in a high-profile voting rights case.

The legal action is part of a series of instances in which Florida’s aggressively partisan Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has been accused of academic interference at his state’s universities in areas that include voting rights, the teaching of racial equity, and freedom to conduct research into Covid.

Professor Fuchs, who has been president of the flagship University of Florida since 2015, told the campus community that he had informed the trustees back in August of his plans to leave in 2022.

His announcement made no reference to the political controversies, and instead emphasised his work in boosting the University of Florida’s nationwide academic reputation, and in improving its levels of public and private financial support while avoiding any tuition fee increases.

Since 2014, the university has seen its faculty size grow by 25 per cent to more than 4,600; its research spending jump by more than 30 per cent to nearly $1 billion (£700 million); and its annual student applications double to 60,000.

The timing of his departure, the 67-year-old president said, reflected his desire to complete a $3 billion fundraising campaign in autumn 2022.

In previous interviews, however, Professor Fuchs has acknowledged the limits on his authority created by Mr DeSantis, widely seen as a potential 2024 US presidential candidate. The university never required vaccinations for its students or staff, and it made the wearing of face masks optional in crowded classrooms, leaving it with nation-leading rates of campus Covid infections. Professor Fuchs has said he had no option but to comply with the governor’s wishes on such matters.

Professor Fuchs also agreed under pressure to let his university’s professors testify in legal cases against the state, but his new policy – now facing the court challenge – still requires case-by-case approvals.

The situation is part of a wider upheaval in the state’s higher education system. The University of South Florida and the University of North Florida also are seeking new presidents, and Florida State University just hired a new leader in August.

Professor Fuchs previously served as provost at Cornell University, and as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University and the University of Illinois.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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