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Saturday, May 18, 2024

At UF Law, a crisis averted, but questions remain

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Professor Michelle Jacobs started her 28th year of teaching at UF’s Levin College of Law as planned last week, after a week of frantic organizing by students. But things almost turned out very differently. 

On Aug. 17, the law school announced that it would not permit Jacobs, who lives in Washington D.C., to teach remotely. It also announced that her Police Practices class and Critical Race Theory seminar would be cancelled, a week before the start of the law school’s semester. The announcements caught just about everyone by surprise, especially the students, many of whom had been enrolled in the courses for months and already purchased the required materials. 

It’s hard to blame people for being caught off guard — there seemed to be every justification for Jacobs to teach from home. Although some UF Law students are attending classes in person, multiple professors are teaching entirely remotely, and more than a dozen classes were already slated to be offered online when Jacobs’ classes were cancelled. (That number has now expanded to more than 20 online classes.) Additionally, Jacobs already had more than a decade of experience teaching remotely. But perhaps most importantly, it was common knowledge that she has been dealing with health complications that limited her ability to travel, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After shaking off the shock of the news, several of Jacobs’ current and former students jumped into action to figure out what had happened and to convince the law school to reverse its decision. Inquiries to UF Law Dean Laura Ann Rosenbury were initially met with vague, boilerplate answers that offered no insight, and then with radio silence. In response to the dean’s stonewalling, a group of students penned a letter, cosigned by more than 150 UF Law students and alumni, which called on the school to allow Jacobs to teach remotely. When the dean failed to respond, the students organized phone banking efforts and held a demonstration at the law school

Finally, on Aug. 25, two days into the law school’s semester and after a week of sustained pressure by students, alumni and other faculty, Rosenbury announced that Jacobs would be permitted to teach Police Practices and Critical Race Theory as planned remotely in exchange for taking on additional administrative duties for the 2020-21 academic year.

To be sure, the reversal by UF Law is a welcome shift that was celebrated by both the law students and the broader UF community. Jacobs is much beloved by her students, and these courses are more important than ever given the nation’s current reckoning with racial justice and police violence following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Trayford Pellerin and Daniel Prude in addition to the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But the chaotic series of events that led to Jacobs teaching as planned left many questions unanswered, and the answers to which the available facts tend to point to are very troubling indeed.

For starters, why did the school originally refuse to let Jacobs teach online? In addition to the circumstance noted above, Jacobs had filed an application for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the law school’s administration knew about the application. There appears to be no rational justification for insisting that she teach in person. Was it because the school prioritizes the optics of in-person instruction over the safety of its faculty and the education of its students?

How many other faculty members aren’t getting the accommodations they deserve? There are other UF Law faculty who haven’t been permitted to teach remotely. Did any of them have pending ADA requests? Did the law school violate the ADA by short-circuiting the accommodations process? 

How does the law school reconcile the attempted cancellation of the only course that offers a comprehensive examination of the intersection of race and the law with its stated commitment to dismantling systemic racism?

Because of Rosenbury’s opacity, we may never know the answers to these questions with certainty. But, as a member of the UF Law community, I’m distressed by the answers that the available facts point to.

Curran Butcher is a 3L at the Levin College of Law.

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