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Friday, April 12, 2024

Academic freedom coalition steps forward as UF denies critical race theory concentration

UF said the title would offend state legislators

Tigert Hall is seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.
Tigert Hall is seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The fight for academic freedom at UF took a new turn as a professor filed a grievance with the university after it prohibited a degree concentration on campus because it contained the words “critical” and “race” in its title.

The Coalition of Faculty for Academic Freedom is leading another effort to fight against faculty infringements after Chris Busey, a UF College of Education professor, filed a grievance about the fresh breach of academic integrity at UF. 

The coalition is made up of faculty members wanting change in response to the academic freedom scandal where professors allege First Amendment rights were violated by the university. 

It issued a statement and distributed a petition separate from the United Faculty of Florida’s petition Dec. 1 to stand in solidarity with Busey, UFF and all other affected faculty. The petition garnered almost 300 signatures from faculty in various departments before ever reaching the public. 

“We were surprised at how many signatures started coming in and how fast,” said Michelle Jacobs, a UF Levin College of Law professor. “I think that’s an indication of how important the issue is.” 

The coalition started forming after the news first broke about the three political science professors who were denied by UF the ability to provide expert testimony, Jacobs said.

“What was done to them was just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. 

In Busey’s case, professors in the College of Education aimed to approve a concentration titled “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education.” UF’s administration denied the proposal and told the faculty the title had to be changed to something less offensive to the Florida legislature, according to the filed grievance. The words “critical” and “race” used together would not be approved, it read.

“Our collective efforts and freedom of speech should never be censored, but instead cherished as a key principle of this university which should act as a beacon for the state of Florida and the nation,” Busey wrote in a statement. 

The political science professors were prohibited from external activities, which caused widespread alarm across not only Florida but the country. 

However, Busey’s story involves internal affairs, said Clarence Gravlee, a UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences professor. 

“If we were alarmed a month ago … we should be even more alarmed about evidence of the administration meddling in the core mission of the university around teaching and scholarship,” he said.  

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The purpose of the coalition, Gravlee said, is to draw attention to the broad actions of the university that threaten academic freedom, not just the actions prohibiting expert testimony.

The problem is that the university’s response is narrowly framed around the three professors when it should be recognizing the pattern of actions occurring beyond this scope, he said. 

“There’s a deep and wide issue that requires a deep and wide response,” UF Levin College of Law professor Nancy Dowd said.  

While it stands behind the demands made in UFF’s petition, the coalition feels it is also narrowly focused, which is why they issued a secondary petition. It is important the petition covers beyond just issues pertaining to the service duties of professors and needs to include how the core research and teaching function is at risk too, Dowd said. 

The hope is the university will take a deep look at the issues brewing within the institution and the circumstances that Busey is facing will be swiftly examined and reversed, Dowd said. 

The coalition, however, believes an independent entity will ultimately have to do the investigation because the university has demonstrated they are not trustworthy to do it properly themselves, Jacobs said. 

UF President Kent Fuchs appointed a task force to investigate the school’s conflict of interest policy. But the coalition and many other faculty members have expressed their concerns about some members in the task force who administered the policies in question. 

Congress and UF’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, both opened investigations to evaluate the school's recent actions. UFF and UF’s faculty senate are calling for separate additional independent investigations.

Congress asked Fuchs to send them information regarding their conflicts of interest policy. UF already sent the SACSCOC appropriate documents for the investigation, which asserted UF had no external influence on its decision about professor testimony. 

However, those documents will not include anything concerning Busey’s grievance, Jacobs said, which directly ties the administration to pressure from the state government. 

“I’m deeply concerned about the way the university administration is moving to stifle dissent, and suppress academic freedom and suggest that our work as faculty members needs to be aligned with the interests of the political party in power,” Gravlee said.

UF rose to its top five public university status Sept. 12, but Gravlee believes the school will not remain in the top five after the academic freedom infringements. A majority of the rankings are based on an institution’s reputation, and the events that keep making headlines reflect poorly on UF, Gravlee said. 

“In the broader realm of higher education, the University of Florida appears to be crumbling,” he said. “Our reputation has been shattered.” 

Contact Elena Barrera at Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.

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Elena Barrera

Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.

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