UF Professors Say School Restricted Them From Criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis: Report

University of Florida professors said that they received verbal instructions not to criticize Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or the school's COVID-19 policies when speaking with reporters, according to a new report released by the school's Faculty Senate this week.

The report outlines a school environment in which officials are so wary of upsetting state politicians that they removed certain race-related references from course materials and blocked some professors in a now-reversed decision from testifying in a lawsuit against a DeSantis-backed law.

A committee of professors compiled the report using confidential comments from other faculty members. It touched on a wide range of concerns among professors and faculty, including academic freedom, outside work and fears about voicing unpopular opinions.

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

For example, health and medical professors who wrote op-ed pieces or commentary were told not to mention their connection to the university and refrain from castigating DeSantis' pandemic policies to safeguard funding for the school, the report said. The governor's administration has been vocal in its opposition to COVID measures like mask and vaccine requirements.

Professors told the committee that websites and syllabi were altered to prevent the words "critical" and "race" from appearing in the same sentence. Some faculty were also asked by administrators to change or put on hold certain curricular proposals, according to the report.

"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."

University of Florida Report
University of Florida professors said that they received verbal instructions not to criticize Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or the school’s COVID-19 policies when speaking with reporters, according to a new report released by the school’s Faculty Senate this week. DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Doral, Florida, on May 14, 2020. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

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 said 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 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."

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.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

UF President
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 faculty report released this week. University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs speaks during a press conference at Emerson Alumni Hall in Gainesville, Florida, on October 15, 2014. Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun via AP