Joe Henderson: Unforced errors leave the University of Florida embarrassed

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From COVID-19 policies to First Amendment rights, UF is on the wrong side of bad headlines these days.

The University of Florida is a proud institution whose alumni love to remind folks that it’s great to be a Florida Gator. That’s true most of the time, but lately, um, not so much.

A series of unforced errors has left the state’s flagship university divided, embarrassed and needing changes.

The latest involves what, on the surface, seems like a rather callous COVID-19 policy by the university. The Independent Florida Alligator reported on the case of freshman Juan Esquivel, who tested positive for the virus Jan. 12.

Esquivel said an employee with UF’s housing department coldly told him to be out of his dorm by 5 p.m. “or there’ll be serious consequences.”

Esquivel lives in Tennessee.

UF used to offer isolation dorms for students who live on campus and test positive for COVID-19, but it now limits that option. The employee told Esquivel there was no place on campus where he could isolate, so GET OUT!

A friend put him up in a hotel for one night, and Esquivel flew home the next day. He wore two masks on the plane.

Yes, COVID-19 is serious, and the university must protect students and staff against a relentless opponent. Have a little empathy, though, especially with scared and confused students.

Courtesy is free, you know.

But UF’s virus policy isn’t the only smudge on its record of late.

Last week, U.S. Chief District Judge Mark Walker excoriated the university for trying to prevent six professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state.

He compared UF’s actions to Hong Kong University’s removal of a 25-foot sculpture about the Chinese military’s massacre of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That appeared to be a preemptive move to avoid reprisals from the Chinese government.

If UF didn’t like the comparison, the judge wrote, “the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.”

In October, three professors sued after university officials said they couldn’t act as expert witnesses for plaintiffs challenging the state’s restrictive new voting law. First Amendment advocates went bonkers, and the university retreated, but the lawsuit went forward.

Later, a pediatrics professor joined the lawsuit. He said the university blocked him from testifying in a different suit challenging the executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis to withhold funds from schools that enforced mask mandates. Two law professors also signed on, saying they could only sign a court brief against the state if they withheld their affiliation to UF.

Let’s not forget the reports that showed Board of Trustees Chair Morteza Hosseini expedited Joseph Ladapo’s resume to UF Health despite his controversial views on COVID-19. The same week DeSantis appointed Ladapo as the state’s new Surgeon General, he received a UF professorship with tenure.

Politics, particularly the heavy hand DeSantis often wields, is at the core of these situations. That’s not unusual.

University presidents around the state present their institutions as idyllic places dedicated to unlocking young minds, but the reality is somewhat different. They understand that dealing with lawmakers goes with the territory.

Budgets and careers can rise and fall on how skillfully they do that.

This seems different though.

You can say the experiences of the COVID-19 student and the muzzled university professors are not related. However, I think it shows a growing coarseness by UF leaders. They seem to fear reprisals from Tallahassee if they teach or say something that isn’t in lockstep with what the state demands.

Earlier this month, UF President Kent Fuchs announced he would resign after this year. He said it was “time to pass the baton.”

The worry is, which hand will be outstretched to receive the handoff?

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


7 comments

  • tom palmer

    January 24, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    How the mighty have fallen.

  • Tom

    January 24, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    $4 Billion with a B Joe. Florida is a cash cow due to America’s Gov! Florida leads the USA thanks to Gov. New flush additional revenue due to sales tax and housing doc transfers. It’s a wonderful life. Stat that!

  • Tom

    January 25, 2022 at 6:52 am

    University’s should be educating their students, not taking tax payers monies and subjugating society to their extremist, socialist political views. As for the resignation, sounds like it was the right thing to do.

  • Charles

    January 25, 2022 at 11:59 am

    Some good information and facts but the peddler of yellow journalism Henderson can’t control himself
    “They seem to fear reprisals from Tallahassee if they teach or say something that isn’t in lockstep with what the state demands”

    This swipe at DeSantis Unnecessary and factually unsourced and supported. Typical from this old washed up curmudgeon.

  • politics

    January 25, 2022 at 2:12 pm

    Education is complex It takes natural intelligence.along with book logic.lets get back to that.
    To many wrenches locking up the wheels. All infectious contagions were never allowed amongst a crowded area.
    You have a dangerous flu you are sent home too.
    It is also against the law knowingly knowing you have a pass around virus std is a crime.

  • politics

    January 25, 2022 at 2:19 pm

    P.S the university is not he medical unit.

  • Joel J.

    January 25, 2022 at 2:40 pm

    *Universities

Comments are closed.


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