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Saturday, May 18, 2024

UF agronomist and former chair of the agronomy department’s DEI committee Deah Lieurance began casually exploring job opportunities outside UF in 2022.

Recent higher education state legislation targeting marginalized communities spurred Lieurance’s job search, she said. 

“I wouldn’t have been looking if it weren’t for what’s happening in the state,” Lieurance said. “As things intensified, I started looking a little more closely.”

The Florida House of Representatives audited UF in January for a list of DEI employees, their salaries and all communications. Lieurance’s communications were searched because of her position on the IFAS DEI Committee. 

Four months later, Lieurance accepted a job offer at Pennsylvania State University as assistant professor of invasive species science and management.

That same month, DeSantis signed SB 266 into law. The bill limits funding toward DEI initiatives at state universities, implements a new post-tenure review system, and prohibits general education courses from teaching “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

“Nobody’s really comfortable being put on lists in the governor’s office,” Lieurance said. “At a certain point, you have to protect yourself.”

Lieurance will officially leave UF in September after ten years at the institution.

She is one of more than 730 employees who have resigned from UF in 2023, the Tampa Bay Times previously reported. In 2022, 1,087 UF employees resigned — the only time that number has exceeded 1,000 in the past five years.

The exodus of UF faculty potentially comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a series of bills reforming higher education.

Meera Sitharam, president of the UF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, thought legislation like SB 266 has set off alarm bells within the union, she said.

“[In a normal year], people are primarily concerned about meat and potatoes issues, like what their salary is going to be,” Sitharam said. “But this year is different. I think people are much concerned about the attacks on academic freedom.” 

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Sitharam believed the passage of the bill is a key factor in recent faculty departures.

However, Sitharam believes it is too soon to determine the effects of state politics on UF’s workforce.

Despite speculation of “brain drain”, which is a mass departure of skilled workers, the overall faculty turnover has not seen a substantial increase.

The current faculty turnover rate is 9.2 percent, according to a UF Human Resources report.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty turnover at UF sat at 8.9 percent.

Current data might not tell the full story, said Sean Trainor, a Warrington College of Business professor and vice president of UFF-UF.

“The statistical picture is not yet clear,” Trainor said. “What I think is clear, at least anecdotally, is that UF is having a terrible time replacing folks, particularly in politicized fields.”

The turnover rate hasn’t changed, Trainor said, but the behavior of departing faculty has.

“The critical difference is that if you leave because you're pursuing what you see as a better opportunity, you're not going to go to your new school and talk a lot of trash,” Trainor said. “I think the folks who are leaving now are going to be negative ambassadors for both the state of Florida and [UF].”

Maryam Jamshidi, a former Levin College of Law associate professor, resigned from UF in May.

Jamshidi, who writes and teaches international law and national security, felt like she couldn’t do her scholarship in the way she wanted to at UF.

“I'm never going to not write about things that don't have a political angle to it,” Jamshidi said. “I couldn't teach in the classroom or do my scholarship in the way I wanted to in an environment like UF.”

Jamshidi began to lose faith in UF’s political autonomy prior to the passage of state legislation.

“The law school already felt like it was being compromised,” Jamshidi said. “The state-level stuff just made it totally untenable.” 

Along with Jamshidi, other UF law professors found the university to be an unhealthy work environment.

A UF Faculty Senate report released in June found “twenty-five faculty have left [the Levin College of Law], including all five African American faculty; those who left said they ‘cannot teach here anymore.’

Jamshidi began as an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s law school in June. She already feels the school has done more to ensure academic freedom than UF. 

“There were statements made by various high-level members of the administration at CU expressing commitment to those values that were being eviscerated,” Jamshidi said.

UF did little to assure faculty about their commitment to those values, she said.

“There was no public response to the attack on academic freedom,” Jamshidi said. “I think the school has taken the public stance of pretending nothing is happening.”

However, not all concerns about faculty retention center around academic freedom. 

Paul Ortiz, a UF history professor, thought low pay is driving faculty away from UF.

“We’re not making the types of offers that a top five university should be making,” Ortiz said. “Frankly, no one outside of Florida is going to see us as a top five university as long as that continues to exist. It’s like a ticking time bomb against us.”

For Jamshidi, money wasn’t a factor in her departure from UF. She took a pay cut for an associate professor position at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“I don't care how much money they would have thrown at me,” Jamshidi said. “If it had been the way it is now, I would have never come [to UF].”

Contact Garrett at Follow him on Twitter @garrettshanley.

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Garrett Shanley

Garrett Shanley is a third-year journalism and history major and The Alligator's Fall 2023 university administration reporter. In his free time, Garrett can be found watching Wong Kar-Wai movies and brooding.

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