UF testimony reversal caps tumultuous week

University of Florida brick sign with American flag
University of Florida brick sign with American flag

In a struggle between UF’s faculty and its administration over providing expert testimony in lawsuits, UF President W. Kent Fuchs has reversed an earlier ban on three professors working on a Florida voting rights case.

The three political science professors, Sharon D. Wright Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel A. Smith, filed conflict of interest forms with the university, saying they were being hired by a law firm to provide analysis and expert testimony in a lawsuit that challenged Florida’s new voting law, known as S.B. 90.

The three are nationally recognized experts in voting behavior and political participation. Smith has previously been an expert witness in numerous lawsuits and has testified about election issues to both Congress and the Florida Legislature.

Recently, Smith and McDonald were contracted to help the City of Gainesville with its required redistricting efforts.

“The university’s move is a gross violation of academic freedom; more importantly, though, it’s an undermining of our mission to serve the people of Florida—all of them—as employees of a state research university,” the three professors wrote in an opinion piece this week for the Washington Post.

According to a screenshot McDonald posted on social media, Gary Wimsett, UF’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest, initially denied the request, writing: “UF will deny its employees’ request to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.”

The ban on their testimony drew national media attention, an investigation by the university’s main accreditation body, and a list of demands from the faculty union.

In a short statement sent to the university community Friday, Fuchs said he asked the Conflicts of Interest Office to reverse its decision and approve the requests.

In another screenshot, McDonald verified that he had received notification they were approved to testify in the case. Wimsett wrote: “The previous institutional decision is reversed per President Fuchs’ directive…”

In his statement, Fuchs also announced he was appointing a task force to review the university’s policy regarding conflicts of interest. The task force, which includes the provost and deans of the law and journalism colleges, will make recommendations on how UF should apply the policy to similar future requests.

Fuchs’ directive this week only applies to Austin, McDonald and Smith. However, other media outlets have identified instances where UF faculty members were denied requests to provide testimony or expert opinion in issues that involved the state.

Because it is not an isolated incident, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) at the University of Florida is continuing to ask for an independent, external investigation of UF’s policies.

“UFF-UF is looking for a clear and unambiguous commitment to academic freedom going forward,” Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s chapter of UFF, wrote via social media.

Despite the change in status of their original request, Austin, McDonald and Smith filed a lawsuit Friday in federal district court against the Florida Board of Trustees, Fuchs and Provost Joseph Glover.

“[The] plaintiff’s job as public university professors and researchers is not to be mouthpieces for a particular administration’s—or any administration’s—point of view,” according to the lawsuit. “It is to develop and share their knowledge with the people of Florida while upholding the University’s values.”

As part of the lawsuit, the professors are asking the court for an injunction against UF using the conflict of interest policy to bar activity deemed not in line with the state of Florida. They also are asking the court to declare similar applications of the conflict of interest policy as “unlawful.”

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