The University of Florida told its accrediting body that external pressure was not part of its initial decision to bar three professors from working as experts in a legal case.
The university’s response to its accreditor—the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)—and a set of recommendations from an internal task force were released Tuesday as part of a public statement by the university.
In October, UF’s Conflicts of Interest Office denied a request from three political science professors to act as experts for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenges Florida’s latest voting rights law, known as S.B. 90.
Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Wright Austin are nationally recognized experts in voting behavior and political participation, but their requests were denied because the university said their involvement in a lawsuit against the state of Florida was “adverse to UF’s interests.”
UF President W. Kent Fuchs reversed the university’s stance on Nov. 5 after national media coverage and criticism from faculty members and alumni.
As part of the outcry, the school’s accrediting body asked for an official UF response to a series of questions, including whether the school or its Board of Trustees had been pressured to deny the requests for outside work and how the decision to deny fit into the university’s academic freedom policies.
In the six-page response to SACSCOC, the university said the decisions were made internally and not affected by outside influences, and the Board of Trustees members were not involved in the decisions.
“The University of Florida values academic freedom and ensures that it is preserved and protected through policy, procedure and responsibility,” according to the school’s report to its accreditors.
On Nov. 5, Fuchs also established a task force made up of the provost, two deans, three professors and the school’s chief ethics officer. The task force was charged with making recommendations about how the university should respond to future employees’ requests to serve as expert witnesses in cases that involved the state of Florida.
The university told the accrediting body that it had accepted the task force’s recommendations, including ones to publicly reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom and faculty free speech rights.
The task force, which met six times and approved a final report on Monday, recommended that the university operate on “a strong presumption that the university will approved faculty or staff requests to testify as expert witnesses” in lawsuits involving the state and said that presumption is especially important when the cases “challenge the constitutionality, legality, or application of a Florida law.”
The task force said that if any expert witness application was denied the university would need to have “clear and convincing evidence” that the testimony conflicted with a specific university interest, which the school would have to outline in writing.
The university also could continue to deny requests which it determined would create too much of a time conflict with the faculty members’ regular duties, according to the final report.
In addition, the task recommended the creation of an advisory committee and an appeals process for conflict of interest denials.
Clay Calvert, a noted First Amendment scholar and task force member, said that the task force recommendations were on a “narrow and specific issue” but said he hoped the university would keep larger principles in mind if the policy recommendations were adopted.
“[The] University of Florida is a public institution and serving the public interests of the citizens for Florida should be its highest priority,” the professor of law and journalism and communication said. “And one way faculty can aid in serving that public interest is by serving as public intellectuals… [and] bringing their expertise to bear– their knowledge and opinions–on matters of public concern.”
He said he hopes future conflict of interest and academic freedom decisions will be grounded in principles and not in “fear of possible financial repercussions… nor in any efforts to curry favor to those powerful few who may control or influence the purse strings.”
“A conflict of viewpoint is not necessarily a conflict of interest,” Calvert told the task force at the Zoom meeting at which it approved its report.
Attorneys for the three professors, who are part of a lawsuit against UF over the conflict of interest denials, said in a statement to the Miami Herald that they were disappointed at the task force’s recommendations.
“The proposed changes address only the narrow issue of expert testimony, and even on that limited topic, they fail to cure the constitutional problem with the university’s conflict of interest policy,” attorneys David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly said in the statement. “That policy still allows the university to restrain the faculty’s free speech based on impermissible reasons and [at] the university’s discretion. We will continue to press the university to make the real change that the Constitution requires.”