U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has called on state education officials to investigate claims made in a “disturbing” new report by University of Florida professors detailing how faculty curbed race-related references in course materials and blocked, delayed or destroyed COVID-19 data out of fear of retaliation by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.
Crist said Wednesday that he had sent a letter to the Florida Board of Governors and University System of Florida Chancellor Marshall M. Criser III demanding they look into the report’s charges and determine who called for the alleged censorship.
Further, he said he has spoken with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz about the issue, which the House Committee on Oversight and Reforms plans to examine.
A former Governor vying again for his old job, Crist laid the blame at his opponent’s feet.
“We cannot allow Gov. DeSantis’ regime to go unchecked,” he said. “Just as this Governor has endangered our state during the pandemic, he now (poses) a direct threat to freedom of speech and academic freedom (for) faculty not only in the University of Florida but all our institutions of higher learning.”
The 247-page report by a committee of professors for UF’s Faculty Senate comes after months of accusations that UF staff had their academic liberties stifled at the behest of state politicians.
In one such instance, the university in October prohibited three professors from testifying in a lawsuit challenging a new law critics say restricts voting rights. After an onrush of protests, UF reversed course on the decision the next month.
In another, faculty union members complained last week that UF administrators were warning faculty members not to use the words “critical” and “race” together in a new doctoral concentration description to avoid the ire of state lawmakers backing a bill banning critical race theory in government.
But the new report, released Monday and citing input from a multitude of faculty members who spoke confidentialy to avoid retaliation, describes a far more pervasive and potentially dangerous pattern of information suppression.
The report mentions numerous challenges UF researchers faced while working on COVID-19 with the state, including “external pressure to destroy data,” “barriers to accessing and analyzing deidentified data in a timely manner, and barriers to publication of scientific research which, taken together, inhibit the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic.”
Employees were also “told verbally not to criticize … in media interactions” DeSantis or UF policies regarding COVID-19.
“There is a palpable feeling of fear among tenured and non-tenured (College of Medicine) faculty of reprisal if they speak out on these issues,” the report said.
“The report makes it clear that the university feared retaliation and withholding of state funds so much so that it created a culture of suppression among their own faculty in order to appease our Governor,” Crist said. “The censorship of the University of Florida faculty is clearly unacceptable, undemocratic and un-American, and we know who’s to blame. As Gov. DeSantis attacks and defunds school boards and businesses who dare to challenge his leadership, it is clear that this Governor has and will continue to use and abuse the power of his office to make sure Floridians fall in line and aid and abet his partisan agenda.”
UF law professor Danaya Wright, a former Faculty Senate chair and one of the report’s five listed authors, said Wednesday she and others at the school are “greatly appreciative” of the work and support DeSantis’ administration, the Legislature and state education officials, whom she credited for UF’s high ranking among American public universities.
“But obviously, we’ve reached a point where it seems a line has been crossed,” she said. “What’s happened here is we are finding that our loyalties to our professional organizations, these professional standards we have to adhere to, are being jeopardized. There’s pressure. You’re told not to speak the truth.”
Alachua County Democrats Chair J. Maggio, who teaches political science at St. Johns River State College in Palatka, called the state’s alleged preemption on information and scientific accuracy and timeliness a threat to both democracy and longstanding structures meant to support and strengthen academia.
“Restricting speech like this defeats the whole point of — the historical reason (for) — tenure, which is to tell truth to power and use that as sort of an open field of debate,” he said.
Maggio pointed to the passage this year of House Bill 233, which mandates that Florida public colleges and universities measure their on-campus “intellectual diversity” levels through surveys.
“People in humanities, social sciences, are scared about this, but so are people in the hard sciences,” he said. “It seems like some of the core on one part of the ideological spectrum is sort of digging in against the science. It’s very disturbing, and (attempting to stop the UF professors) from testifying is part of the trend.”