UF accrediting body finds no further action needed

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UF has changed its policy and procedures surrounding outside activities to the point that its main accrediting body will not take any further action in the case.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) investigated UF after extensive media coverage of the school’s denying requests from three of its professors to participate as election experts in a lawsuit that challenged Florida Senate Bill 90. 

In the fall, three UF political science professors, who are experts in voting behavior and election participation, filed conflict of interest forms, saying they were being hired to provide analysis and expert testimony in a lawsuit against the state. UF initially denied the request saying that testifying against the state of Florida would be “adverse” to the university’s interest.

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Concerned about potential threats to academic freedom, SACSCOC asked the university to explain its policies regarding external influence and its protections of faculty members rights.

Although the university reversed its decision and instituted changes to the conflict of interest policy and process, the accrediting body told the school in December that it would send a special committee to UF during the spring semester to do a further on-campus investigation.

The resulting report from the special committee found that the university had changed its conflict of interest policy and procedures — changing who reviews and makes decisions on the requests, altering the criteria on which the requests are judged and adding an advisory committee made up of mostly faculty members to review denied requests.

Under the new procedures, faculty members also can file an appeal if their requests are denied. The revised protocols now include UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and its agricultural extension agency.

“The new procedure that has been put in place is clear, contains appropriate faculty involvement and oversight, and addresses almost all the shortcomings of the previous processes,” the special SACSCOC committee wrote in its report.

Based on the special committee report, the SACSCOC decided Thursday at a meeting that no further actions were needed, said Dr. Janae Johnson, the organization’s public relations and data specialist.

“We are very pleased with the results of the review of the Special Committee of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges,” the university said in an email statement. “The outcome affirms the university’s commitment to the academic freedom of its faculty members and the First Amendment’s guarantees of the right of free speech.”

Although UF is no longer facing an accreditation threat over this particular incident, a lawsuit filed by the three professors and joined by three additional faculty members is ongoing. A federal judge in the case issued a temporary injunction against UF, barring the school from denying faculty requests to participate in trials and other legal proceedings against the state of Florida.

The preliminary injunction remains in effect until the conclusion of the case. A bench trial is scheduled for November.

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