#FreeUF Coalition: UF leaders have it wrong. The problems facing UF aren’t made up by the media

From the July 20, 2022 Gainesville Sun

The University of Florida has for many years been building its reputation for excellent research, teaching and extension. But more recently, we have developed a major problem with trust between university administration and the faculty, staff and students. 

Distrust and poor morale threaten to undo decades of work building UF’s reputation, and as faculty, staff and students, we feel utterly betrayed by the recent column by UF President Kent Fuchs and former Faculty Senate Chair David Bloom. 

We cannot work together to solve problems that the administration refuses to acknowledge. Fuchs and Bloom have effectively demonstrated the reason for our distrust, while contributing further to the breach: They have gone to the public to declare that there was never a problem; the media made it up.

The impulse to blame the media for issues they bring to light is a spiraling problem of its own, but not one that we expected our university president and former Faculty Senate chair to embrace. We want UF to live up to its ideals, abide by its own policies and procedures, and be the university we’ve been working hard to build. 

We are not out to destroy our own reputations; our degrees and our careers are here, too. All the more reason that we want to see our administration working to fix problems rather than burying them.  

Fuchs and Bloom proclaim that “the controversies over UF’s COVID response and accusations of political influence on academic freedom, research integrity and faculty hiring and tenure have been shown to have no merit.” This statement stands in direct contradiction to findings from both internal investigations and a federal District Court ruling.

The university denied multiple faculty members’ approvals to provide expert testimony, and issued an official statement that, “as UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” In other words, the faculty cannot bring their expertise to bear in cases adverse to interests of the ruling political party. 

The media did not make this up. When reporting raised the attention of our accrediting body, UF’s administration did make changes to procedures for approving outside testimony, but the task force that crafted those changes included administrators who were responsible for the policies that landed UF in court in the first place. 

The new policy offers more proclamations than substantive protections. It was enough to satisfy the accreditors, but it remains to be seen whether the new “strong presumption in favor of such testimony” will be maintained. 

The same kowtowing to political influence was evident in UF’s pandemic response, during which Fuchs refused to advocate for campus control of safety measures, saying that the campus is part of the state and he lacked authority to make decisions. 

The administration’s passive acceptance of statewide policies that went against our own experts’ recommendations for local measures culminated in a 70-31 vote of no confidence in UF’s safety measures by the Faculty Senate. Such a vote is the ultimate pronouncement of mistrust on a campus. 

Fuchs and Bloom also attempt to dismiss the strong support for those “allegations that UF bowed to political pressure to hire and grant tenure to Dr. Joseph Ladapo.” They claim that these have “no merit,” even though Bloom’s own Faculty Senate committee appointed to investigate the hire found egregious irregularities in the hiring process, including that two of the four search committee members reported having never been consulted and a third was not even a current UF employee. 

The hire was initiated by upper administration rather than by any UF department, with one memo noting that a home department for Ladapo had not yet been identified and an offer of tenure was produced before the faculty had even conducted the required vote.

The Faculty Senate committee’s report concluded that “the irregularities … appeared to violate the spirit, and in review the exact letter, of UF hiring regulations and procedures, particularly in the vital role faculty play in evaluating the qualifications.”

How are UF faculty to trust new procedures protecting academic freedom, when our administration rides roughshod over current hiring procedures? How can we rebuild trust, when our leaders deny or minimize what is in front of our eyes? 

Despite UF’s accomplishments, and its much-lauded rankings, faculty in the trenches are seeing signs that UF’s low faculty morale and struggles with heavy-handed political influence are beginning to erode our reputation and our ability to hire and retain talent. 

We hold out hope that incoming leadership will be able to stand up to political whims and advocate for the campus. We need honesty and transparency. We need an administration that is accountable to our principles, policies and procedures. 

This piece was submitted by the FreeUF Coalition, represented by Allan Frasheri (student), Kestrel Ward (staff), Sixue Chen (faculty) and Steven Kirn (retired faculty).