The three leading Democrats running for Governor slammed Gov. Ron DeSantis for what they characterized as embarrassing moves to politicize Florida’s colleges and universities and suppress academic freedom and freedom of speech on campuses.
“I was embarrassed. I was angry. I was heartbroken,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried after she, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Sen. Annette Taddeo spelled out a litany of recent reports alleging the Governor’s Office was muzzling faculty and pushing partisan agendas on boards of trustees.
Their comments came at a virtual town hall forum on higher education organized by the United Faculty of Florida union. DeSantis also was invited, but declined.
The three Democrats provided what the union leadership likely sought: outrage, promises to change policy course and encouragement to open academic freedom.
The forum follows recent reports that DeSantis engineered a University of Florida faculty appointment for his pick for state Surgeon General; that three UF professors were denied rights to testify as expert witnesses in a case against the state; that a UF College of Education professor was censored and bullied over a course title that included “critical race;” that professors have been barred from reporting COVID-19 research data; that the UF board chairman sought to include DeSantis’ political desires about the pandemic in university policy; and that a new state law under House Bill 233 seeks to control political speech and teaching under the assumption that it’s mostly liberal.
“Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought are under fire,” Taddeo said.
“This current government uses and abuses his power each and every day to control not only our public universities, but the actions of researchers and faculty in their personal and professional lives. And all in the name of using Florida’s resources as pawns in his political game of chess,” Crist said. “Literally for weeks now, our state’s flagship university, the University of Florida, has been embroiled in headline after headline, not for the incredible news that the school is now a top-five public university in our nation, but because of infringements on academic freedom and freedom of speech.”
Fried added one more allegation to those that have been in headlines this fall. She charged DeSantis and his political machine with requiring members of university boards of trustees to give campaign donations to keep their appointments.
“I don’t know if this is as public. You all should know,” Fried said. “Our current boards of trustees across the state were required to give a campaign contribution to Ron DeSantis in the amount of $100,000. And if they didn’t give him the campaign contribution, they were not reappointed to the boards. That is what we are dealing with here in the state of Florida with this Governor.”
Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré bluntly and emphatically denied the allegation.
“It is a bald faced lie, which is par for the course for Fried,” she said.
Fried pledged a house cleaning.
“While I won’t be able to immediately fire them all, certainly when their reappointments come in play, I will not be reappointing those members of boards of trustees that are all campaign donors to the Republican Party,” she said.
Taddeo pressed HB 233 as a linchpin attack on academic freedom and said she would seek its repeal as a first priority, using veto threats to convince Republicans in the Legislature go along.
“It would be essential to start fixing all these laws that have been passed that are not good for anyone, and certainly not for Florida, and certainly not for higher education,” Taddeo said.
Crist belittled DeSantis for declining to defend his record at the UFF forum.
“That’s appalling. It says all you need to know,” Crist said.