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Thursday, February 22, 2024

UF professor sues university after losing Fall semester classes

Professor Richard Burt is suing four faculty members of the University of Florida under the First and Fourteenth Amendments

A tenured UF professor is suing four faculty members, including President Kent Fuchs, for a five-day suspension without pay and for being stripped of his Fall 2021 classes. 

The university investigated Richard Burt, a tenured English professor, for sending controversial emails to students informing them classes would be held through Zoom. He also attached a statement from UF Union head Paul Ortiz criticizing the university's COVID-19 policies. 

They determined him guilty and also charged him for faculty misconduct and violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement — a contract between an employer and the teachers’ union.

Burt requested to teach two classes remotely for the first three weeks of the Fall semester due to COVID-19 concerns. He was unaware Fuchs rescinded his Aug. 9 message giving professors the option to teach remotely on Aug. 13, according to the lawsuit.

A student made a complaint against him after he sent the email signaling classes would be taught via Zoom. Rick Johnson, Burt’s lawyer, said the student’s parents were influential political contributors and university donors. After hearing the complaint, Sidney Dobrin, chair of the English department, told Burt classes had to be held in person.

When Burt learned the remote option was no longer available, he emailed students again, this time saying he would be teaching in-person classes against his will.

Burt is suing Fuchs; David E. Richardson, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences; Mary Watt, associate dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences; and Dobrin under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. He claims he was not granted his rights to free speech and due process.

Johnson said Burt’s image has been hurt and his position is now in jeopardy.

Richardson requested an investigation into Burt to see if he had exhibited disruptive behavior by sending controversial emails to students, according to the lawsuit. Johnson said Richardson and Dobrin co-signed a letter requiring Burt to take courses in email effectiveness and cultivating judgment.

The investigation was performed by Petra Pindar, a UF employee relations investigator, according to the lawsuit. Two more charges — faculty misconduct and violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement — were added to the investigation after it began. Johnson said Burt was found guilty on the additional charges without being able to defend himself.

At the request of Watt, Burt took a mental health exam and released his results to the university. Johnson said UF questioned Burt’s mental health because of the disagreement over COVID-19 protocols. 

In early December 2021, UF Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom released a document that advised UF employees not to criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis’ or UF’s COVID-19 policies in media interactions. Johnson said the university’s statement was too restrictive. 

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Johnson said the lawsuit stems from miscommunication. Burt was under the impression he could teach over Zoom. He found out he couldn’t after classes started. Johnson said UF wants to make an example of Burt to discourage faculty from openly opposing its ideologies.

“They want people to be more compliant, obedient, submissive, to have those kinds of servile attitudes,” Johnson said.

The university and Richardson declined to comment on the active lawsuit. Watt and Dobrin have not responded to The Alligator’s request for comment as of Sunday.

Burt was told he could be fired for any future violations in the letter placing him on probation, according to Johnson; he worries the university could unjustly fire Burt for minor offenses. 

“Normally, if you’re tenured, you pretty much have to kill somebody before it rises to the level of a firing offense,” Johnson said. 

Churchill Roberts, chair of the grievance committee for the United Faculty of Florida at UF, said Burt initially came to the union to discuss filing a grievance regarding the situation. They were waiting for UF to give a decision before filing; Burt found an attorney and filed the lawsuit shortly after.

Roberts said he thinks Burt has a strong argument and UF should settle the case to avoid a lawsuit.

Contact Kyle Bumpers at Follow him on Twitter @BumpersKyle.

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Kyle Bumpers

Kyle Bumpers is a fourth-year journalism major and the sports editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he cries about Russell Wilson and writes an outrageous amount of movie reviews on Letterboxd.

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