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AAUP President Cautions Against Lack of Transparency as University of Florida Seeks New President

Statement from AAUP president Irene Mulvey on academic freedom and the upcoming presidential search at the University of Florida.

Last fall, University of Florida administrators tried to prevent three faculty members from providing expert testimony in a state voting rights case. At that time, I issued a statement pointing out the hypocrisy in the administration’s rationale for these decisions, and what appeared to be blatant and inappropriate political interference. It was gratifying to see the UF faculty senate respond immediately to this threat by creating an ad hoc committee charged to “gather information and report back to the Faculty Senate on UF practices that reportedly have restricted the ability of UF faculty to engage in outside activities that are normally accepted as appropriate scholarly activities of university faculty.” On this narrow fact-finding charge, the subcommittee’s report is thorough and troubling, describing “barriers to faculty research and publication, restrictions related to participating in outside activities that allegedly challenge the political priorities of the executive branch of the State, and pressure to alter syllabi and course content to avoid viewpoints unpopular among current elected state leaders.” Even more problematic from the point of view of academic freedom are the instances reported to the committee of self-censorship due to concerns over retaliation. The committee’s report exemplifies the robust defense of academic freedom that faculty senates across the country should engage in as part of their participation in shared governance, and I am grateful for their careful and important work.

The committee appropriately did not address any issues outside of their narrow charge. The larger context, though, is essential to understand because academic freedom is not simply a perquisite for faculty. Violations of academic freedom can be a serious threat to democracy. The underlying motivation behind impulses to suppress academic freedom—whether they originate in an administration, a board of trustees, a board of governors, a statehouse or a governor’s mansion—is always the same. The goal is to silence experts in order to obscure the truth and sow confusion. This is a familiar tactic from the playbook of authoritarianism, and any movement in this direction is an attack on democracy. 

We speak up now because the University of Florida administration and trustees appear poised again to step away from the mission of higher education to serve the common good. A presidential search will be undertaken due to the current president stepping down at the end of the year. This is an opportunity to affirm principles of shared governance, and to highlight transparency and accountability in public higher education in the state of Florida.

Unfortunately, legislation proposed in the state—SB520—would create a public records exemption to apply to the pool of applicants for public university and college presidents, including the search at the University of Florida and potentially one already underway at the University of South Florida.

The apparent motivation is to avoid transparency, and to deny faculty and other members of the campus community opportunities to meet with the candidates applying to lead their institutions during these challenging times. This is yet another attempt to control the truth, to enable them to make a decision on a new president without any of the requisite and valuable input from the faculty and staff that the new president will lead. The AAUP calls upon the UF Board of Trustees to ensure that the presidential search will be conducted in a transparent manner consistent with AAUP guidelines. Our guidelines recommend that colleges and universities resist calls for closed, secretive searches; involve faculty representatives in all stages of the search process; and provide the entire faculty and other members of the campus community with the opportunity to meet with finalists. Such an open and thorough process of selection is fundamental to determining which candidate has the academic leadership and administrative skills needed to successfully lead the university. As the search moves forward, the higher education community looks forward to the UF board of trustees taking this important opportunity to show that public higher education in Florida does in fact continue to serve the public good.

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 25, 2022