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Friday, November 05, 2021

More on academic freedom at UF (Updated)

Updated: The university backed down, at least for the moment. The president convened a task force (including Clay Calvert, an excellent First Amendment scholar who teaches in the journalism school, and law dean Laura Rosenbury) to develop policies for "how UF should respond when employees request approval to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party." That framing is problematic, still conflating the university with the state of Florida, but we have to see. The president also ordered the university conflict's office to reverse recent decisions and allow faculty to testify, for compensation, in cases to which Florida is an adverse party.

The University of Florida Chapter of United Faculty of Florida issued a list of demands. After the jump, I summarize and comment.

1) Allow the three faculty members to provide paid expert testimony in the voting-rights litigation, as well as allowing other faculty to do the same in other cases. They also want the university to issue a formal apology. Makes sense. This is what started this whole thing, which has brought to light other academic-freedom concerns at the university, such as state laws requiring schools to conduct "intellectual environment" surveys and limiting what faculty can speak to students about.

2) Affirm the right of faculty to "conscience, academic freedom, free speech rights, and expertise in an expert witness context, regardless of whether they receive payment for their expertise." Obviously.

3) Affirm its support for voting rights and commit to opposing ongoing efforts to suppress voting rights in the state of Florida. This is stupid, over-grasping, and unnecessary. There are good arguments (from scholars across the political spectrum) that academic institutions should not take institutional positions on public issues, no matter how obvious the issues. This demand says "it is not enough that we be able to express our preferred position, you also must tell us that we are right in our position." It also plays into the narrative of liberal academics controlling the university and silencing those who oppose their messages by insisting that their views be the institution's views.

4) Formally declare that the University's mission to serve the public good is independent of the transitory political interests of state officeholders. Instead, UF should uphold its mission statement as the prime directive for all University activities. Good.

5) Donors should withhold donations unless UF complies with the four main demands, including explaining why they are withholding. Interesting, but unlikely to do much. One of the faculty members at the press conference announcing these demands said he had donated to the school in the past and would stop doing so. But I doubt that the donors the university cares about--those who build buildings and endow centers and chairs--would follow suit.

6) Officials at other schools should tank UF in their US News and other assessments, because of this, as well as its response to COVID, its "poor commitment to environmental sustainability," and broader attacks on employees' speech, academic freedom, and labor rights. This is trying to hit UF where it hurts. The university made a big deal about becoming the #5 public university in the 2021 US News (trailing UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia and tied with UNC and UC-Santa Barbara)--there is a photo circulating of DeSantis with university officials, holding a # 5 Gators jersey. Again, though, why drag an unrelated political issue such as the environment into this?

7) Professional associations should call out UF.

8) Accrediting agencies should investigate, since failing to protect academic freedom undermines its ability to provide a world-class education.

9) Artists, scholars, and intellectuals who are invited to perform at the University of Florida should decline these invitations until the University complies with our academic freedom demands. When declining an invitation to appear at the University, invitees should clearly specify why they are declining the invitation and, if they are active on social media, should use the hashtag #NotAtUF.

I asked Steve Lubet (Northwestern) for his thoughts, as he criticizes calls for academic boycotts. He writes:

Academic boycotts are bad in principle because they undermine the free exchange of ideas. I understand the impulse here, which is to exert maximum pressure on the administration, but it would be performative and counter-productive. Desantis and his acolytes don’t care much about artists or visiting scholars appearing at UF, so only the students and faculty will be hurt. They should try demanding that other universities drop UF from their sports schedules, which might actually have an impact.

I would add that it would create a political imbalance in the exchange of idea, because conservative speakers will be happy to speak at UF, not only for the opportunity to speak but also to own the libs.

10) Call for a UF Faculty Senate resolution affirming these demands.

11) Employees should refuse to disclose outside activities and conflicts of interest via the UFOLIO system. Until the University can be trusted to use this information responsibly, it should not be trusted with this information at all. Nothing like some civil disobedience as a topper. But they might consider Tracy v. Florida Atlantic University, a different conflict between an SUS entity and faculty speech. Tracy, a professor of communications and media studies, ran a blog that questioned Sandy Hook; the university asked him to disclose the blog as an outside activity, Tracy refused, and the university fired him for insubordination. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the university, concluding that the disclosure policy was not constitutionally invalid and thus firing him was not inappropriate. That one does not trust the university to use information responsibility, divorced from any apparent constitutional violation in the disclosure rules, does not excuse the obligation to comply with the disclosure obligations. I suppose if enough people stop complying the university cannot fire everyone for non-compliance, so maybe it works in the short term.

I presume the university will back down on this; it does not want this to remain a national story. I remain focused on how this trickles down to my school.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 5, 2021 at 12:11 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Teaching Law | Permalink

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