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Sunday, September 24, 2023

GATORSAFE App: The Big Stick of UF’s Modern McCarthyites

Students are being co-opted, and faculty policed

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

More than two weeks ago, UF administrators rolled out a COVID-19 report form in the GATORSAFE app, a public safety collaboration overseen by 33 assistant vice presidents, directors, and managers of Student Affairs’ departments.

Then on January 11, the UF administration sent a direct request for students to report instructors who prefer to teach virtually this semester. Though many universities are keeping classes online, the University of Florida has chosen to do the opposite by mandating face-to-face for faculty.

The report form enforces UF’s COVID-19 policies, which require instructors to attend in-person classes under threat of “disciplinary action by the university,” according to an email sent by College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean David Richardson.

Aren’t there exceptions? Well, basically no.

Instructors who have applied multiple times for medical exemptions, including sexagenarians concerned about being anywhere in public, have been repeatedly turned down by the UF administration and instructed to go into the classroom — even if all students choose to appear online, according to an email from Dean Richardson sent privately to CLAS faculty and administrators on January 19

Dean Richardson consistently wields rhetorical strategies such as ‘understatement,’ ‘euphemism,’ and ‘hypophora.’ For an email that’s supposed to convey consequential policy updates for faculty, it sure is hard to read.

This presents an alarming crisis at a time when instructors need the ability to understand policies in order to avoid being purged via GATORSAFE.

In a reported letter to Dean Richardson, Department of Political Science Chair Dr. Daniel Smith warns, “Emulation of police states is not a good look for a university devoted to the education of democratic citizens. What sort of message does this send to our students?”

Despite this, the UF administration continues to claim that the face-to-face faculty mandate and GATORSAFE enforcement prove that “our first obligation and commitment is to the students,” in the words of Steve Orlando, UF’s assistant vice president for communications. Orlando’s remark about ‘obligation to the students’ was echoed by President Fuchs in “Planning for the Spring Semester.”

Dr. Vincent Adejumo, senior lecturer in the African American Studies program, strongly disagrees with the university’s rhetoric. He says, “Nobody asked for this. You need to look at how much money UF makes off of student housing, Aramark in the cafeterias, and selling our brand. That consistent money from having students on campus isn’t there if instructors have the freedom to socially isolate as is necessary.”

It has become abundantly clear that the primary strategy in enforcing mandatory classroom attendance for instructors — almost 5,000 UF faculty members — has been to create a panopticon: mobilize the students. Co-opt students to surveil instructors on behalf of the administration.

This comes as the administration has been intimidating and endangering faculty, all under the guise of upholding an ‘interminable contract with students.’ From forcibly expanding in-person classroom capacity to making faculty sit in classrooms with many students who have not yet received COVID-19 test results, the administration has proven time and time again that their actions consider the best interest of only themselves.

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Today, as we live through political violence during a worldwide health tragedy, it should alarm the UF community that there are parallels between GATORSAFE reporting and one of the darkest points in our 168-year history: the suffocation of faculty by the Johns Committee.

Faculty have suffered at the hands of the UF administration for decades. Policing and discrimination have always been at play.

The Johns Committee, a squadron of Florida legislators and law enforcement, wielded a ‘big stick’ similar to today’s discriminatory GATORSAFE policing. From 1956 to 1965, the McCarthyite Johns Committee terrorized faculty and integrationist organizations by seeking to discover communist connections among academic liberals and Civil Rights Movement groups.

UF administrators enabled the investigations, opening us up to more attacks particularly on faculty of color. As a result of the Johns Committee, at least 15 UF professors and more than 50 students left the university.

Dr. Susan Hegeman, a professor in the Department of English, echoed concerns about the discriminatory impacts of unrestrained policing. “These apps that get students to snitch, or ‘report crimes,’ are tools of racist and discriminatory policing. We know that on these apps, people don’t tend to report people who look like them. So they tend to target people of color, they tend to target the LGBTQ community.”

Historical trends demand that we face the institution-wide impact of discriminatory policies — enforced by co-opting the masses — continuing through the present day at UF. It’s shown by our F in Black representation equity. It’s shown by the impact of GATORSAFE.

Some are taking effective forms of action like the United Faculty of Florida, UF’s faculty union led by Dr. Paul Ortiz. He questions the legality of UF’s COVID-19 policies by pointing to Articles 10 and 18 of the collective bargaining agreement, respectively: protecting the freedom to discuss relevant matters in the classroom, and establishing a faculty evaluation agreement.

The latter article could end the GATORSAFE report form, as the article permits only two methods of evaluating faculty. GATORSAFE presents a new anonymous evaluation, allowing administrators to report on stubborn faculty members — which could later introduce a police-like ‘investigation.’

“The GATORSAFE report form is a horrifically divisive, undemocratic, anti-faculty, and anti-student piece of technology which is being used to breach instructors’ rights,” said Dr. Stephanie Smith, professor in the Department of English.

But, this is not to say we are powerless. Some of the strongest counterforces to injustice have been students.

Students draw from latent power which is always available to be tapped into.

People always look at us when we organize on a large enough scale. The first step to reexamining the University of Florida’s COVID-19 policies — and perhaps removing the face-to-face faculty mandate — must be students standing side-by-side with their underappreciated and overworked instructors in a display of what students truly demand from our university.

To prove their sincerity when claiming to operate “on behalf of students,” the UF administration must let us decide if our professors can go online. It’s not the ideal solution, but it's enough for now. If all in-person HyFlex students choose to move online at any time in the semester, that class should immediately become 100% online and synchronous.

If university leaders continue using GATORSAFE to co-opt the student body against the faculty’s academic freedom, the next step is to refuse to attend in-person classes to support our instructors’ right to do the same.

Andy Shodell is an English and political science sophomore.

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