The Academic Freedom Crisis at the University of Florida

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tags: Florida, academic freedom, Ron DeSantis, University of Florida

Last September, a professor at the University of Florida wanted to sign a scientific consensus letter about kratom, a tropical tree with pain-relieving properties. The faculty member’s proposal was forwarded to Gary Wimsett Jr., the university’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest, who had a question: What did Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, think about kratom?

Kratom has been the subject of controversy, as scientists and policy makers weigh its potential benefits against the possibility of addiction and abuse. Oliver Grundmann, the UF professor, had concluded that kratom, at least for the time being, should not be reviewed for global classification as a controlled substance; he sought approval to sign a letter in his role as a faculty member stating as much. But Wimsett wasn’t sure it was a good idea.

“I do note the DEA has listed kratom as a drug of concern,” Wimsett wrote to administrators, describing the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, “and it would be important to know where the governor and the state legislature stood on this. If taking this position were adverse to UF’s interests (i.e., adverse to the interests of the State of Florida) it would not be something we’d want them doing.”

Grundmann got the green light to sign the letter. But the discussion about kratom, which has not been previously reported, laid out a rationale with far-reaching implications: A professor opposing the state could be a problem for UF. Six weeks after that exchange, news broke that the university had applied this logic to deny three political-science professors’ requests to participate in voting-rights litigation against the state. That decision, first reported by The New York Times, set off a firestorm over academic freedom and free speech. A week later, under enormous public pressure, the university reversed course.

Chronicle investigation reveals that the political-science denials reflected a more deeply ingrained practice than has been previously reported. Reviews of a professor’s outside activity, such as serving as an expert witness, were typically led by the university’s Conflicts of Interest Program. But awareness of the university’s skeptical treatment of politically sensitive cases was significantly more widespread. Administrators in the general counsel’s office, government relations, the provost’s office, UF Health, the research office, and the deans of the law school and College of Liberal Arts & Sciences all had some knowledge of the approach. There is little evidence, however, that people across these units sufficiently weighed the trade-offs of this practice, which pitted academic freedom and free speech against short-term political considerations.

This article is based on more than 1,000 pages of public documents and court filings, recordings of legislative hearings and collective-bargaining sessions, and more than 30 interviews with professors, outside experts, and administrators. Taken together the interviews and documents portray a university’s radical departure from what many assume to be its purpose: Creating and dispersing knowledge without fear or favor.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education