President’s message on attacks on academic freedom

Feb. 27, 2023

In the face of another round of repressive legislation aimed at higher education, UFF-UF’s Membership Committee hosted a meeting last week open to faculty union members and non-members alike.  We had a vibrant discussion about the challenges facing us in an era when higher education has become a plaything for politicians who haven’t spent a single day working in a university classroom, library, or counseling center.

We concluded the assembly on a positive note, vowing to defend each other, our students, and the integrity of higher education. We recognized the grave challenges facing us. However, we took heart in the fact that our union was founded in the 1970s by the descendants of victims of the Holocaust, survivors of dictatorships, and instructors who endured the iniquities of Florida’s infamous Johns Committee. We are not going to let those colleagues down! 

How did we arrive at this moment of crisis? While faculty, staff and graduate students kept courses, laboratories, field sites, extension centers and experiments running round the clock during the worst months of the Global Pandemic, highly paid “experts” descended on Florida claiming that we were lazy, that we are abusing tenure, and that and that we were wasting taxpayers’ dollars on “Zombie Studies” and “trendy ideologies.” Paradoxically, the same headline-chasing experts baselessly claimed that instructors were “grooming,” “indoctrinating” and driving away countless students from UF and other universities. 

These wildly contradictory claims besmirch the integrity and accomplishments of higher education in Florida. 

Let’s invoke history and evidence to set the record straight. In 2015, President Fuchs asked me to serve on his Goal-Setting Task Force. Our group of seventeen faculty, administrators and students met with hundreds of stakeholders on campus and across the state to compile our report titled, The Decade AheadThe number one objective we set for the University of Florida was to be “An exceptional academic environment that reflects the breadth of thought essential for preeminence, achieved by a community of students, faculty and staff who have diverse experiences and backgrounds.” 

Less than ten years later, where are we? The University of Florida is consistently ranked in the top ten—and higher—of public research universities. Our discussion seminars, performing arts centers, museums, education labs, and medical facilities are internationally renowned. Faculty have earned the highest accolades in their fields. Colleagues have been elected to serve as the heads of our disciplinary associations. Our undergraduates continue to lead their peers across the country in academic achievement. The proof? Each year, thousands of UF students matriculate to their top choice medical, law, and graduate programs—or are embarking on successful careers in agriculture, education, business, and other fields. 

In addition to being recognized as outstanding instructors, our faculty and research teams are bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive grant and contract funds into our campus and the region. According to the University of Florida News, the “University of Florida faculty surpassed $1 billion in research spending for the first time in 2022, developing treatments for diseases, new agricultural products, engineering solutions and countless other advancements. With $1.076 billion in research expenditures, UF joins an exclusive group of about 15 public universities around the country to surpass $1 billion, including the University of Michigan, UCLA and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.”

By any objective measure, this is a time to be proud of being a Gator. Instead, relentless attacks and faux exposés are negatively impacting campus morale. Exceptional faculty are starting to leave, and newly minted PhD’s from top research universities are beginning to consider starting their careers elsewhere. Objective commentators recognize that these attacks against the University of Florida and other institutions of higher learning in the Sunshine State are politically motivated and have more to do with the runup to the 2024 Presidential Elections than the quality of our educational system. Indeed, conservative as well as liberal analysts are united in their concern. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression argues, “Florida House Bill 999 is a dangerous expansion of the unconstitutional ‘Stop WOKE Act,’ putting entire majors disfavored by legislators on the chopping block.” 

Well before House Bill 999 was proposed however, Governor Ron DeSantis showed his hand by launching a frontal attack against the United Faculty of Florida, shared governance, and the integrity of higher education. DeSantis’s plan includes a provision, “Requiring institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to take ownership of hiring and retention decisions, without interference from unions and faculty committees.” The governor’s plan is to is to eliminate our disciplines’ peer-reviewed and merit-based hiring systems to create a system that the state controls. In public speech, DeSantis emphasized, “We also want to empower university presidents to make hiring decisions for their university by reestablishing their authority over the hiring process….A lot of this is done by faculty committees and, you know, they have a certain worldview that they want to promote.” DeSantis understands that our collective bargaining agreement affirms transparency in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions, and he wants to replace the CBA’s articles with his own “worldview.” 

As your union chapter’s president, I promise you that if we come together during this moment of crisis, we will ultimately defeat these authoritarian efforts to sabotage what we have all worked so hard to build. Already, representatives of the 25,000 members of United Faculty of Florida who represent faculty at every university and many of the state’s colleges have been meeting to discuss strategies to preserve academic freedom. We are not alone in this struggle. In addition to thousands of fellow union members across the state, each of our campuses is supported by retired faculty, alumni, parents, and students dedicated to support “the rights of all Floridians to learn without authoritarian control and to exercise their constitutional freedoms as Americans.”

Our union will continue to work closely with the UF Faculty Senate—many senators are also UFF members—and the administration to promote our common interests in defending our university from outside political attacks. In addition, we enjoy tremendous national support. This is not the time to panic. It is the time to affirm the values of shared governance, intellectual freedom, and democracy.

I believe that to defend intellectual freedom, we must exercise intellectual freedom. Many of you know me as a colleague whose work draws on Critical Race Theory and African American Studies—two fields of inquiry that the state of Florida is trying to censor and ban.  Just as I once took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, I vow to pursue my research, and teaching activities in the way I deem academically rigorous in service to the people of Florida and the nation regardless of what Big Brother decrees. 

Last April, I wrote an op-ed promising that “I Won’t let Florida’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’ Silence discussions on race in my classroom.” I’ve kept that promise and thanks in large part to the United Faculty of Florida’s advocacy on behalf of academic freedom, a federal judge recently issued a preliminary injunction against Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” HB 7. With your support and membership in UFF we are going to prevail and build an even better University of Florida.

In Solidarity,
Paul Ortiz
UFF-UF Chapter President
Professor of History