‘It Just Felt Wrong’: U. of Florida Faculty Say Political Fears Stalled an Initiative on Race

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tags: culture war, academic freedom, critical race theory, University of Florida

Another University of Florida professor has accused the institution of violating his academic freedom to ward off possible action by state lawmakers. In this instance, the scholar says, administrators intruded upon curricular matters, recommending, for one, that faculty members avoid the word “critical” in the title of a new doctoral concentration related to race.

The episode — as laid out in a grievance submitted on Sunday by the faculty union — paints a portrait of university administrators who are hesitant to rile a potentially hostile Republican Legislature, and who are willing to compromise faculty autonomy to avoid essentially poking the bear. The actions described are at odds with stated academic-freedom principles and could “tarnish” the university’s reputation, reads the grievance.

The complaint comes on the heels of news that UF had barred scholars from testifying in litigation against the state, which provoked outcry that the institution was buckling to partisan pressure. The university quickly reversed course and has said there was no undue external influence.

Chris Busey, who filed the grievance, told The Chronicle that the episode has been destabilizing and demoralizing. “I’ve never hid my identity as a race scholar. It was in my job talk. It was in my cover letter. It’s who I am as a scholar.” In other words, “You knew who I was when you hired me,” Busey said. “Don’t expect for me to change because Ron DeSantis said so.”

Steve Orlando, a university spokesman, said in an email that, pursuant to state law, any grievance matter would be confidential, and the university is therefore “unable to publicly acknowledge whether a grievance has been filed.” However, he said that the grievance, which The Chronicle sent to Orlando, contains “a number of inaccuracies, and we will address them through the appropriate processes.” Orlando declined to elaborate on what the inaccuracies are.

Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, colleges across the country voiced their opposition to systemic racism and said they would put renewed energy into diversity and equity. The University of Florida was no different. Graduate students within UF’s College of Education pressed their leaders to do more to support Black students and faculty, to live up to those stated values. From that effort arose the Collective for Black Student Advancement, a group of faculty and staff members, students, and administrators, among others, who met regularly to discuss these issues.

Busey is on the collective’s curriculum committee, which focused on how to understand racism and anti-racism in education. Eventually, the committee came up with a couple of proposals, including a doctoral concentration titled “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education,” which would formalize a degree focus that’d been operating informally for years, Busey said.

The concentration “was designed, in part, to recruit new students, but also to allow us to give our existing students an opportunity to show what they had expertise in, which is helpful on the job market,” said Angela Kohnen, an associate professor in the College of Education. In part because the courses already exist, it seemed like relatively “low-hanging fruit,” she said. The committee also came up with another idea for a master’s-level certificate in anti-Black racism in education that could act as a “welcome mat,” of sorts, to the field, Kohnen said.

At the time, there was institutional excitement and momentum around these types of initiatives, Kohnen said. Then came roadblocks.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education