In the midst of controversies over the state of academic freedom at the University of Florida, the UF faculty senate has released a report raising further concerns, including that the administration and external sources may have interfered with faculty research about the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, the UF faculty senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom — convened after reports that UF barred three political science professors from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit against the state — released a report concerning administrative practices that have restricted faculty’s ability to “engage in outside activities that are normally accepted as appropriate scholarly activities of university faculty.” Among other things, the report unveiled a number of concerning “challenges” that UF faculty and researchers have faced in research regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Tampa Bay Times:
The report discusses several “challenges” faced by UF researchers who were working on COVID-19 with an unidentified state entity. It describes “external pressure to destroy” data as well as “barriers” to accessing, analyzing and publishing the numbers. Taken together, the report said, those problems “inhibited the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic.”
The report further states that UF employees were told “not to criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions.” It says they were told not to use their UF titles or affiliation in written commentary or to give oral presentations. And faculty at UF Health expressed concerns over funding being in jeopardy if they did not adopt the state’s stance on pandemic regulations in opinion articles, the report says.
Additionally, the report alleges that “websites were required to be changed, that course syllabi had to be restructured, and that use of the terms ‘critical’ and ‘race’ could not appear together in the same sentence or document.” (FIRE wrote to UF last week about a report that “critical” and “race” were prohibited in curriculum and program design.)
The new allegations concerning restrictions on COVID-19 research and expression do not provide a significant amount of detail, and it is difficult to ascertain from this report alone what transpired. However, if accurate, these allegations raise additional concerns about the extent to which academic freedom is protected, in practice, at the university. UF President Kent Fuchs and other university leaders should work expeditiously to address and resolve any violations of its faculty members’ rights.
These allegations about UF restricting COVID-19-related research and expression sound familiar. In March 2020, New York University’s medical school and academic health center prohibited faculty doctors from speaking about COVID-19 with reporters without express approval from the Office of Communications and Marketing. Additionally, the University of California System released a document with “guidance” about how the university community may discuss the pandemic and the coronavirus.
FIRE has long argued that when universities infringe on faculty rights, there is often a chilling effect on those faculty members as well as others at the university.
As FIRE reminded UF in its previous letters concerning the testimony ban and the prohibition of use of the words “critical” and “race,” faculty at public universities have academic freedom to share, publish, and discuss their research and expertise. The university itself reiterates these First Amendment ideals in its own laudable policies — policies which earn FIRE’s highest “green light” rating, as they do not abridge students’ expressive rights. UF officially recognizes that academic freedom is “integral to the conception of the University as a community of scholars engaged in the pursuit of truth and communication of knowledge in an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom.”
Preventing faculty from using their expert knowledge to disseminate research and information related to a global pandemic contradicts the very essence of the university’s intent to “share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.” Just as preventing professors from testifying as private citizens violates their First Amendment rights, it is also a violation of those rights to prevent faculty from adequately researching and publishing information.
FIRE has long argued that when universities infringe on faculty rights, there is often a chilling effect on those faculty members as well as others at the university. Faculty reported this chilling effect to the committee:
More problematic than the individual examples of pressure to stifle unpopular viewpoints or restrict research was the palpable reticence and even fear on the part of faculty to speak up on these issues. There was grave concern about retaliation and a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way. To a certain extent, faculty often engaged in self-censorship and chose not to “rock the boat” for fear of retaliation.
If you’re a faculty member at the University of Florida or any other institution in the U.S. and you feel your expressive or due process rights have been violated, please submit a case to FIRE.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).