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University faculty back UF professors

University of Florida.jpg
University of Florida

Pressure from faculty statewide is mounting on University of Florida leaders to reconsider a decision to block professors from serving as witnesses in a lawsuit challenging a new state elections law that, among other things, makes it harder for people to vote by mail.

Political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin were hired to testify as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in the case. According to a court document filed by the plaintiffs last week, 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 UF.

The university later issued a statement clarifying its position, saying that it took issue with the professors getting paid for serving as witnesses. The statement said the professors would be allowed to participate in the case if they serve “pro bono on their own time without using university resources."

The Advisory Council of Faculty Senates, which represents faculty senates of all 12 state universities, approved a resolution Thursday urging the university to reconsider its decision. Council chairman William Self, who serves on the state university system Board of Governors, read the resolution aloud during a Board of Governors meeting Thursday.

“Together, we express deep alarm about what appears to be a serious breach of academic freedom,” Self read. The resolution pointed to a 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” by the American Association of University Professors, which the advisory council said “set forth clear professional norms” regarding faculty participation in civil discourse.

“When faculty are invited to participate in policy processes through their speech or research, they do so as objective experts, prepared by academic training to focus on evidence over bias,” the resolution said. “When they are denied that right to participate, not only does it undermine both freedom of inquiry and the independence of the university, it denies the citizens of the state, to whom the university is ultimately responsible, access to the most current and independent knowledge available on the issue under consideration.”

Other members of the Board of Governors did not comment on the resolution after Self read it aloud. In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post on Wednesday, the three professors said they intend to testify in the elections lawsuit and fight the university’s order.

“The court should hear evidence without censorship by politicians or the University of Florida,” the op-ed said. “Doing so, after all, is our job — and the cornerstone of the university’s own mission statement: ‘to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.’”

News Service of Florida