University of Florida academic freedom row deepens

Along with blocking faculty court testimony, university allegedly also courted state politicians by interfering in hiring, research and teaching

December 13, 2021
Florida Covid sign
Source: iStock

The academic freedom scandal at the University of Florida is snowballing, with allegations of state government interference into faculty hiring, research and teaching.

The alarm became public with Florida’s flagship university restricting its professors from testifying in lawsuits against the state, allegedly at the direction of its Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, whose aggressively partisan stances have brought him attention as a leading US presidential candidate for the 2024 election.

New concerns include the rapid tenured faculty appointment of a top state health official who is openly sceptical of Covid precautions, campus scientists reporting pressure to restrict and delete Covid research data, and an education professor saying he was pushed to avoid racial equity discussions in his curriculum.

The university, after reversing itself on the issue of courtroom testimony against the state, is now defending its actions in the tenure decision, not commenting on the racial equity allegation, and promising to investigate the data destruction matter.

“The University of Florida takes breaches in research integrity very seriously, and has a long-standing rigorous process in place to investigate them,” the university’s vice-president for research, David Norton, said in a statement concerning the Covid data.

That case involves university researchers working with a state agency who alleged they were pressured by the agency to destroy Covid-related data and prevented at times from obtaining and publishing it.

It was among several cases reported to a faculty senate committee formed to investigate academic freedom on the Gainesville campus after the university forbade three political science professors from testifying in court against DeSantis administration-backed positions on voting rights.

The university promised to relent on the issue of courtroom testimony once the matter became public, although several affected professors are persisting with a lawsuit, saying the political interference needs to be clearly investigated and outlawed.

The tenure case centres on Joseph Ladapo, a former associate professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles and critic of Covid protections including masks and vaccines, appointed by Mr DeSantis in September to serve as Florida’s state secretary of health.

Around the time of that appointment, a political donor and prominent ally of Mr DeSantis, Morteza Hosseini, the chair of the University of Florida’s board of trustees, pushed the university to grant Dr Ladapo a tenured faculty position far faster than the process usually takes.

More than 300 Florida medical professionals wrote to state lawmakers expressing concern over Dr Ladapo’s governmental role, while university officials defended him as qualified for his academic appointment.

The racial equity matter concerns Christopher Busey, an associate professor of education who has filed a grievance against the university contending that administrators told him, under threat of disciplinary action, to change the title of a course in “Critical studies in race, ethnicity, and culture” to avoid upsetting state officials.

Mr DeSantis is a leader among national Republican party leaders in opposing any classroom explorations of critical race theory – the recognition that government policies and practices often have racially biased outcomes – calling it “nonsense ideology”. The university declined to comment on the case of Dr Busey, saying it could not under state law publicly discuss any grievances.

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