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UF president departing, but speech scandal remains | Editorial – Tampa Bay Times

The sudden announcement that Kent Fuchs would step down as president of the University of Florida was as surprising for the news as how it came about. To believe the university’s press shop, Fuchs shared his plan privately in August with the chairman of UF’s board of trustees, months before a scandal erupted over academic freedom that pitted Fuchs between his faculty and state Republican leaders. His departure under a cloud is either a master class in bad timing or another example of politics intruding on university operations.
Fuchs announced the news in a video message Wednesday on the first day back to classes. Fuchs said he told board chairman Mori Hosseini of his decision last August and the two agreed to inform the public this month. The 67-year-old, who became UF’s 12th president in 2015, said he would remain until a successor was found before returning as a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering research.
Nobody can deny Fuchs his accomplishments or the stress of leading Florida’s flagship university. Over the last year, Fuchs was lauded with praise as UF climbed in stature to tie with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Top 5 public university in rankings by U.S. News & World Report. But that image was damaged in recent months as faculty, UF supporters and the higher education community intensely criticized Fuchs and Hosseini over the university’s clampdown on academic speech. If the blowup is unrelated to Fuchs’ departure, it will take more than a canned video to make the case.
The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported this fall on multiple instances where UF restricted faculty members from participating in politically contentious lawsuits against the state. UF refused to allow three political science professors to continue to serve as expert witnesses in a case that challenges a new, restrictive state voting law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-led Legislature. UF restricted other faculty members who wanted to sign a “friend of the court” brief in a lawsuit contesting a new felons voting law, and it told a UF pediatrics professor he couldn’t work on two cases challenging the state’s ban on mask mandates. Administrators said these activities created “a conflict” for UF because they involved employees taking positions that conflicted with the governor.
While the backlash prompted UF to reverse course and allow the three political science professors to testify in the voting rights case, the professors filed a federal lawsuit in November alleging that the policy amounted to a “stifling of faculty speech” that violated their First Amendment rights. On Monday, a federal judge in Florida refused the university’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that the professors face a “credible threat” that future requests for outside participation will be denied.
It hasn’t helped that Fuchs has remained in a bubble and allowed Hosseini to do the talking. During a trustees’ meeting last month, Hosseini unloaded on faculty members saying a “small number” of then had “used their position to advocate personal, political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.” He lamented that the faculty union had encouraged UF donors to stop giving, and delivered an ultimatum. “This will not stand. It must stop, and it will stop,” the board chair declared, before launching into a testimonial for the governor, Senate president and House speaker. The federal judge noted Hosseini’s outburst in his ruling Monday. “Public statements by the Chairman of the University’s Board of Governors leave this Court with little doubt that the University of Florida intends to enforce its conflict-of-interest policy in the manner Plaintiffs fear,” wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida. “In short,” he added, “plaintiffs’ activities anger Tallahassee, that threatens the university’s funding, and so the university must halt plaintiffs’ activities.”
This fight is a loser for the university — on campus, in a court of law and in the court of public opinion — and now it threatens to hang over the search for a new president. It’s another reminder that political expediency has costs, and that the independence of higher education is among its greatest assets.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.
Tampa Bay Times editorial board

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