UF facing added scrutiny over academic freedom

The organization that accredits the University of Florida will visit in the spring to investigate claims that the school is not protecting the academic freedom of its faculty members.

Belle Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), sent the university a letter this week saying the accrediting body would be continuing its investigation into whether the school is complying with accreditation standards.

Specifically, a SACSCOC special committee will be looking to whether UF is complying with the academic freedom guidelines, which require: “The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.”

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Although the university sent a report to SACSCOC saying it was in compliance with accreditation principles, Wheelan wrote that a commission review found “there may be sufficient factual information supporting significant noncompliance…”

In an email to Mainstreet Daily News, Wheelan said the special committee would visit the UF campus in the spring. The committee’s report along with a university response to the report will be formally reviewed in June.

“We have a shared desire to ensure that academic freedom is preserved and protected at the University of Florida,” the university said in a statement. “To that end, we welcome the pending review by SACSCOC and will cooperate fully with the committee’s work.”

UF first faced scrutiny from its accrediting body after media reports surfaced that the school denied a request from three political science professors to act as experts in legal cases.

The lawsuits involved Florida’s newest voting rights law, and the political science professors would have been testifying against the state. A UF assistant vice president initially denied the request saying “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.”

W. Kent Fuchs, UF’s president, reversed the decision and gave the professors the OK to testify. He also empaneled a task force to look into the policies and procedures surrounding faculty members participating as experts in lawsuits.

That task force recommended the university approve almost all faculty requests to act as expert witnesses, especially in cases that “challenge the constitutionality, legality, or application of a Florida law.”

While the university has told the accrediting body that it supports academic freedom, a 274-page UF Faculty Senate report released last week detailed additional problems, including what the senate committee identified as self-censorship on the part of faculty members who feared retaliation if they spoke out.

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