TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (News Service of Florida) — A University of Florida task force held an inaugural meeting Tuesday as the state’s flagship university struggles to regain its stature amid a controversy involving three tenured professors who were told they could not testify as expert witnesses in a high-profile voting rights lawsuit.
University President Kent Fuchs assembled the task force after political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith were denied requests to serve as witnesses for plaintiffs in a challenge to a new elections law (SB 90) that includes making it harder for Floridians to vote by mail. Plaintiffs allege that the law, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring, discriminates against Black and Hispanic voters.
After the university’s move to block the professors from testifying garnered national headlines, UF leaders took a series of steps to walk back the decision. On Friday, Fuchs announced that the professors would be allowed to be paid to testify as experts for the plaintiffs if they do so on their own time and do not use university resources.
Fuchs’ reversal of the university’s decision came the same day the professors filed a lawsuit accusing him and other university leaders of “stifling” their First Amendment speech rights.
The professors’ “job as public university professors and researchers is not to be mouthpieces for a particular administration’s --- or any administration’s --- point of view. It is to develop and share their knowledge with the people of Florida while upholding the university’s values,” the faculty members’ lawyers wrote in an 18-page complaint.
The lawsuit accuses university officials of offering a series of “shifting and inconsistent explanations that laid bare the university’s real goal: to prevent plaintiffs from testifying in support of a challenge to the state’s policies.”
A document filed by the plaintiffs late last month in the elections lawsuit said the university notified the professors they would be prohibited from testifying in the case.
According to court records, the university told the professors that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict” for the university. State universities rely on the Legislature for funding, and the governor has the ability to veto line items in the budget.
Fuchs on Friday said the university would go ahead with convening a task force to review the school's practices "regarding requests for approval of outside activities involving potential conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment."
The panel is charged with examining how the school handles faculty requests to serve as expert witnesses and to engage in other “outside activities.”
University Provost Joe Glover, who serves as chairman of the task force, said during Tuesday’s meeting the panel is faced with addressing “a number of questions” that have arisen.
“The first is, does UF’s written policies on disclosure of outside activities and conflict of interest, as they relate to the issue of serving as (an) expert witness, do these need to be modified in some way to better reinforce the university’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom and other goals? Or are the current written policies sufficient?” he asked.
Laura Rosenbury, a task force member who serves as dean of the school’s Levin College of Law, asked whether the university should make its policy about outside work more clear for faculty.
“I don’t think there are clear definitions right now in the written policies at least, about what is a conflict of interest, what is an ‘outside activity,’ and I think some clarity would be helpful going forward,” Rosenbury said.
Rosenbury suggested that "who we want to be as a university" should be a guidepost for the panel’s recommendations.
The task force will hold seven meetings before delivering recommendations to Fuchs by the end of the month.
The panel also will delve into the process used by university officials when making decisions about conflicts of interest and how those decisions are communicated to faculty.
“I think part of the issues that we’ve had in the current situation is, communication has not functioned as smoothly as it should,” Glover said.
The university has no formal appeals process for professors like Smith, McDonald and Austin, an issue that Glover said the task force should explore.
“Assuming for the moment that the intention is to grant most requests to serve as expert witnesses, what are the possible exceptions to this intention? How do we delineate them, and who gets to decide those exceptions?” Glover said.