UF facing thorny – and old

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TALLAHASSEE – Four of the 13 board members responsible for governance at the University of Florida are major donors to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign, donating a collective of $ 661,800 in recent years, according to a review by the Time / Herald.

While such political involvement by the school board is not new, it suddenly poses a perceptual problem for a university’s governing body trying to allay fears that political pressures are jeopardizing. the academic integrity of the state’s flagship university.

These concerns grew late last month when it became known that the University of Florida had stepped up the hiring of Governor Ron DeSantis’ Division Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, to a permanent position at the Faculty of medicine.

Then, last week, those concerns blossomed after reports that UF also banned three professors from being paid as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, in connection with of a broader policy – it was later reported – that prohibited five additional professors from testifying against state policies or laws. As protests mounted on Friday, UF President Kent Fuchs announced he was seeking to overturn policies that would allow testimony.

The two controversies have drawn national attention, despised and triggered an investigation by the university’s accreditation body into whether the standards of “academic freedom” and “undue political influence” have been violated.

They also rekindled old debates on how or whether universities should be safe from political interference.

Since at least the 1950s, universities have struggled to balance academic freedom – a problem so paramount that they created tenure to protect it – with the whims of Florida governors and lawmakers, who control the purse strings. of their institutions. The debate over political independence has shaped – and reshaped – the way Florida universities are governed, even sparking a clash between two of the state’s political titans two decades ago.

UF’s current board of directors includes two directors who are represented by the faculty and the student body. Six are appointed by the Governor and five by the Board of Governors, a 17-member body overseeing the university system of which 14 members are appointed by the Governor for 7-year terms.

The recent news of the gags has left some university professors freezing over, fearing that they might not have the autonomy to speak out freely due to policies set by the board of trustees.

“A lot of professors are caught between a rock and a hard place because they know that if they stand up, there is nothing they can do,” said Mark Hostetler, professor in the Department of Ecology and Wildlife Conservation at the ‘University of Florida. “There is some pressure, but the leadership has shown that they will not respond to pressure from faculty, but they are responding to all pressure from the board of governors, the board of directors and the legislature. “

Trustees are also donors

Members of the UF Board of Directors are responsible for setting school policies and serving as the “legal owner and final authority of the school”. They are similar to board members of the past in that some are political donors and business leaders with deep pockets.

Four of the UF Trustees are major donors to Governor Ron DeSantis’ campaign.

Mori Hosseini [University of Florida]

They include Mori Hosseini, the longtime home builder and GOP donor who appears to have been instrumental in getting the university to hire DeSantis’ surgeon general. Hosseini, who was reappointed to the board by DeSantis in January, has donated nearly $ 112,000 to his policy committee, either directly or through his companies, ICI Homes and Intervest.

James W. Heavener
James W. Heavener [ University of Florida ]

Jim Heavener, CEO of The Heavener Company and for-profit Full Sail University, was appointed to the board by DeSantis in January. He is a UF graduate and major university donor, with a football facility named after him, and he donated $ 250,000 to the DeSantis committee.

Rahul patel
Rahul patel [ University of Florida ]

Rahul Patel was reappointed to the board of directors by DeSantis last year. Patel, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Atlanta, and a UF graduate, gave DeSantis $ 175,000.

Anita G. Zucker
Anita G. Zucker [ University of Florida ]

UF graduate Anita Zucker is the billionaire CEO of a South Carolina chemicals company and the richest person in that state, according to Forbes. She donated $ 100,000 to DeSantis’ campaign two months after the university’s board of governors chose her as UF administrator in 2019.

Administrators have remained mostly silent on the gag orders, with Hosseini saying the matter “is under consideration”. Hosseini, Zucker, Patel and Heavener did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the university.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email that “to suggest that the UF as an institution is somehow politically aligned or influenced by Governor DeSantis is absurd and baseless.”

“The executive branch has no reason to interfere in the affairs between the university administration and the faculty, and that has not happened,” said Pushaw.

Previous governors have chosen campaign or party donors for positions that oversee state universities. The last Democrat to be elected governor, Lawton Chiles, appointed two of his former campaign treasurers and at least three major donors from the Democratic Party to the Board of Regents, the precursor to the current Board of Governors, in the 1990s.

“Governors have always been inclined to appoint people who supported them,” said Dubose Ausley, Tallahassee lawyer and former chairman of the Board of Regents in the 1980s.

Universities and governors have a long history of “symbiotic” relationships with large donors, who are often sought after for their expertise and ability to raise funds for their schools, said Peter Cruise, who heads the LeRoy Collins Public Ethics Academy at Florida Atlantic University. . Their gifts to the governor don’t mean they can’t be good stewards of the university, he said.

“Does this sound unusual or inappropriate to the general public?” Maybe, ”he said.

Cruise said he believes, overall, the level of political intrusion into higher education is the highest he has seen in his 35 years of teaching the profession.

“Academic freedom is under attack, and has been for decades across the country,” he said. “These problems are not unique to Florida.”

Long history of controversy

Political interference in Florida universities is said to be a part of a bygone era.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the state legislature launched a McCarthy-style investigation to find students and teachers who were gay or sympathetic to Communism. Known as the Johns Committee after committee chairman Charley Johns, it was formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs Board of Education, which ruled segregation unconstitutional.

The committee initially targeted the NAACP and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for their involvement in the bus boycott, but spread to gay or communist students and professors at UF and the University of Florida. from South. (An effort to issue a formal apology to the victims of the Johns Committee failed to pass the legislature in recent years.)

In response, the legislature created the Board of Regents in 1965. The new body was intended to act as a buffer between Tallahassee politics and the university system.

It hasn’t always worked. As governor in the 1980s, Bob Graham said micromanagement by lawmakers was the “thorniest problem” for the state university system, and he said he had seen regents lose their jobs for the sake of it. disagree with lawmakers. In 2001, the former chancellor of the ET York university system described cases of governors and powerful lawmakers interfering in university departments, trying to get rid of certain professors, choosing university presidents, or creating unnecessary new universities. .

The supervision of the regents disappeared in 2001, when the then governor. Jeb Bush and lawmakers abandoned it in favor of a system that would place universities under the authority of an education commissioner. He also created a board of directors for each university.

The 10 university presidents unanimously opposed the legislation. Graham, who was a student at UF when the Johns Committee was investigating, was alarmed.

As US Senator for Florida, he took the unusual step of launching an effort to amend the state Constitution to bring back the regents model. Under his proposed amendment, university administrators were retained, but a new board of governors was created to oversee the university system and create a firewall between schools and Tallahassee.

“The main purpose of the amendment was to try as much as possible to keep universities out of politics,” said Robin Gibson, lawyer and spokesperson for the committee that initiated and led the effort.

The amendment was passed in 2002 with the approval of 60% of voters, but it did not end the delicate dance between politicians and universities. Since then, lawmakers have bypassed the Board of Governors to create a new university, tried to bar some people from becoming university presidents, and pushed for a secret application process for university presidents, which professors have consistently opposed. .

They also wrested control over the setting of tuition fees, a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling holding the legislature – not the board of governors – responsible for setting fees.

This year, they passed a law requiring surveys to assess the level of “intellectual freedom and diversity of views” on college campuses, a reflection of long-standing tensions between conservatives in Tallahassee and liberal college campuses.

For Gibson, the issue of banning professors from testifying as paid expert witnesses offends him more as a lawyer than as an advocate for academic independence. Expert witnesses are simply presenting information for the benefit of the court, not to score political points. But the university seems to disagree, he said.

“Everything is political, and this is a wonderful example. “

Times / Herald editor Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.


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