UF students need to fight Tallahassee’s political grip

by Allan Frasheri, President, UF YDSA

“Every single thing we do — as a board, as an administration, as faculty, as University of Florida employees and officials — Everything MUST have our students as our number one priority. Our job is to give our amazing students a top-five university education.” 

This is how Mori Hosseini, chair of UF’s Board of Trustees, started the Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 3. He continues, “Unfortunately, we learned a couple years ago, that we had a small number of faculty members who were not carrying out the responsibilities of their jobs here. They were not putting the students first. In fact, they were using university time, resources, and sometimes even our students to benefit outside jobs and positions from which the faculty were personally profiting directly.”

A few hours prior, outside of Emerson Alumni Hall, I and several other members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (a student organization at UF) and the College Democrats joined Dr. Paul Ortiz, president of UF’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, in leafleting the union’s demands to members of the Board of Trustees, the Provost, and members of UF’s Presidential Cabinet as they walked into the meeting. We were there to have our voices heard directly by administration and the trustees and for there to be no misunderstanding in the fact that we, the students of UF, stand in solidarity with the faculty. 

Earlier that semester, the university administration prevented three political science professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state by several voting rights organizations over a recent Florida law, which they claim discriminates against voters of color and violates the Voting Rights Act by limiting mail-in and drop box voting. 

The administration’s rationale was that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.”

The professors went to the faculty union for recourse. The union initially wanted to resolve the matter internally and warned the administration of the negative attention the university would receive if they didn’t reverse their action and if the matter went public. 

The administration didn’t heed the union’s warning and news of the grievance and the UFF’s demands went public. News of the university infringing on academic freedom, the first amendment rights of the faculty, and due process, wasn’t well received by the public. Now, the university faces an investigation by its accreditor and a congressional investigation by the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Liberties.

The administration claimed that their only qualms were with the professors receiving payment for their testimony and that they would allow them to continue if they testified pro-bono. 

However, news then came forth that five other professors, four from the law school and one from the medical school, were also prevented from providing expert witness in other cases. 

The medical professor was a pediatrician who was prevented from providing pro-bono testimony, never asking for compensation, on cases relating to mask mandates for children. The administration provided the same rationale about conflict of interests and when asked for clarification stated, “As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” 

The administration eventually reversed its decision but didn’t accept the UFF’s other demands for an apology, an independent audit of the decision and external political influences on the university, and a commitment to not interfere in the free speech of its professors and to continue serving the public good and its mission independent of political interests of the State. 

A few days later, more than 50 students protested the administration’s actions with the faculty union on the corner of W University and 13th Ave and signed a petition demanding the administration accept the UFF’s demands. 

At the Board of Trustees meeting, the Chair tried to pit the students against the faculty, stating that the actions of the professors engaging in outside activities “is disrespectful to the students who depend on their professors’ full attention and commitment.” 

Chair Hosseini, one of Florida’s largest real estate developers and who donated over $100,000 to DeSantis’s election campaign, tried to dispel notions that the members of the Board, who are appointed by DeSantis and who collectively donated over $600,000 to his campaign, are under the political influence of the Governor. 

“As a board” he says, “we are fiduciaries  – meaning that we put our students ‘interests ahead of our own and we hold a position of trust to always do what is best for the university and its mission.” 

However, it’s not clear how, by damaging the integrity of our university and therefore the value of our degrees, the administration is acting in our best interests.

Chair Hosseini also stated that UF’s job is to provide its students with a “top-five university education” and “[To] expose them to a wide range of ideas.” 

However, only several days prior, news came out the University prevented two professors in the College of Education from teaching courses on Critical Race Theory, courses which were specifically requested to be taught by the college’s students. 

An associate provost told the professors that they need to rename their courses or not offer them as to not jeopardize the college’s relationship with the State. According to the associate provost, the President and Provost are not in the position to protect the college as their jobs are in venerable positions. 

Hosseini’s claim that the University is independent of the Governor’s political interests is all the more ridiculous with news of his email request to the President of UF Health to speed track the hiring of Dr. Joseph Ladapo, known for his outspoken criticism of mask mandates and long quarantine periods, to the College of Medicine, immediately prior to him being appointed Surgeon General by Gov. DeSantis. 

It’s becoming all the more apparent that UF works for the Republican party and their corporate donors, not for the faculty, not for the broader community, and definitely not for the students. 

Recent developments at UF, in combination with increasing attempts by the Florida legislature to control k-12 education, points to how much our academic and educational freedoms are at risk. 

Continuing into this semester, the YDSA is working with the UFF and other organizations at UF to fight back against and counter Tallahassee’s hand. It’s time for students at UF to take notice of how their education is under attack and do something about it. 

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