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Violations of Academic Freedom at the University of Florida

The AAUP condemns in the strongest possible terms the decision by the University of Florida to deny permission to three University of Florida (UF) faculty members to provide expert testimony in a major voting rights case challenging Florida Senate Bill 90.

UF’s infringement of the academic freedom rights of professors Sharon Austin, Dan Smith, and Michael McDonald sets a dangerous precedent by allowing partisan politics to impede on the right and duty of faculty to share expertise for the public good. Faculty members are routinely called upon to provide expert testimony on matters of all kinds. In fact, all three of the UF faculty members who were denied permission to assist the plaintiffs have provided expert testimony in lawsuits in the past. This makes last week’s rulings by the university all the more dubious.

The written denials sent from assistant vice president Gary Wimsett justified the denial because the “activities are adverse to [the university’s] interests.” This “justification” is inconsistent with the university’s mission “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.” The hypocrisy is breathtaking. These decisions reek of inappropriate political interference and are completely indefensible.

When a politician attempts to use the power and pressure of the state to silence scholars with expertise on any matter of public concern, it is incumbent upon the university administration to stand firm, insist on institutional autonomy and push back with the strongest possible defense of academic freedom. Universities exist to foster the independent search for knowledge and truth, and to disseminate this in support of the public good. When the university twists itself to serve the partisan interests of a politician, as appears to be the case here, the university has abandoned its mission, undermining any claim to be working in support of the common good.

UF’s decision constitutes an egregious violation of faculty members’ academic freedom and is almost certainly a violation of their free speech rights as citizens. The AAUP stands in solidarity with these scholars in accordance with our mission statement to advance academic freedom in American colleges and universities. We affirm their right to provide expert testimony and will provide whatever assistance we can to support them in their efforts.

You can find the statement on the AAUP website here.

In solidarity,
Irene Mulvey, AAUP President

Shared Governance under Attack in Wisconsin

Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has sought to ensure meaningful faculty participation in institutional governance.

Last fall, we spoke out when the University of Wisconsin system board of regents announced a plan to merge the system’s two- and four-year institutions—a plan made without meaningful faculty input. It was the latest in a number of unilateral and secretive actions taken by system leaders, the state legislature, and Governor Scott Walker, condemned at the time by the AAUP and AFT Wisconsin as constituting “a concerted attack on the university as a public good and on the university’s role in fostering democratic participation.”

The day after the news of the proposed merger, President Cross, facing backlash from faculty, staff, and students, wrote the following in an email message to a system regent: “Getting hammered by the ‘shared governance’ leaders because they weren’t involved in the process; however, had they been involved we wouldn’t be doing anything!!”

President Cross’s remarks, which came to light last week, have drawn quick condemnation. The lone student representative on the twenty-five-member restructuring committee immediately released a statement that read in part: “It is my sincere hope that divisive sentiments toward the employees and students of the University of Wisconsin System will no longer be tolerated. The comments made were simply inappropriate and must be addressed immediately.”

The UW-Madison chapter of the AAUP followed with an open letter to President Cross, expressing its “deep concern about your willful disregard for the role of shared governance” and concluding:

“With the surfacing of your emails, it is particularly difficult for people who are supposed to share responsibility with you in governing this institution to have any confidence in your leadership. When you treat the core principle of shared governance as a concept so worthy of derision and disregard that you surround it with ‘air quotes’ in an email to a member of the Board of Regents, it is difficult to envision ever regaining that confidence. In short, your attitude and words have done further damage to an already damaged relationship.”

The AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance joins the growing chorus of voices denouncing President Cross’s ill-judged remarks and calling on him to explain them.

The committee further calls on President Cross to work actively with faculty, staff, and students on developing policies and practices that will restore a meaningful and productive system of shared governance.

The importance of shared governance to protecting academic freedom and quality higher education cannot be overstated. The AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities notes that “a college or university in which all the components are aware of their interdependence, of the usefulness of communication among themselves, and of the force of joint action will enjoy increased capacity to solve educational problems.” And a recent white paper on shared governance issued by the Association of Governing Boards concludes that “shared governance is an essential component of America’s higher education institutions that needs to be preserved and enhanced.”

The AAUP will continue to monitor the situation in Wisconsin.

American Association of University Professors