Save Academic Freedom!

Paul Ortiz

[THIS IS EDITED from a letter Paul Ortiz, historian and author at the University of Florida, wrote as chapter president, United Faculty of Florida in support of the faculty’s first amendment rights. The union organized a press conference on November 5 and issued several demands for academic freedom.]

FROM THE MOMENT that a courageous faculty member in the Department of Political Science contacted our union on the morning of October 13 to report that they had been accused through the of engaging in “Outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida,” the United Faculty of Florida has been working overtime to defend the rights of faculty engaged in the pursuit of truth in the public interest.

Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin are all renowned experts in the field of voting rights. Since October 13th, leaders of our Grievances team as well as our Executive Committee have been working closely with Dan, Michael and Sharon — all of whom are faculty union members -— in strategy meetings to ensure that they will be able to do what they do best: pursuing scholarship in the public interest in order to expand democracy in our nation.

I am glad to report that UFF President Andrew Gothard and our union’s Executive Director Candi Churchill have been with our chapter every step of the way as we work to ensure that Profs. Smith, McDonald and Austin receive the best legal and union support possible. UFF has consulted frequently with the outstanding labor law office of Donnelly & Gross over the years and this is the firm representing Profs. Smith, McDonald and Austin in their case. Solidarity works!

As your chapter president, I want you to know that our union gave the University of Florida numerous opportunities to reverse course before this matter became an international cause célèbre. We reached out to campus administrators at different levels individually as well as a union to urge UF to allow the affected faculty from Political Science to continue their longstanding scholarship in the public interest. Unfortunately, UF failed to respond, and here we are.

At the request of numerous members of our union, I have requested an urgent Article Six consultation with President Fuchs to discuss violations of academic freedom that have occurred on our campus. We will report on the outcome of this discussion at our November Council meeting. Our goal is to bring UF back in compliance with our 2021-2024 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

As intellectuals, we all share responsibility for ensuring that academic freedom thrives at our university and in our society. As a faculty of color who has been the target of censorship and attempted book banning in the past as well as in the present, I take this issue personally. We should all be alarmed at UF’s actions; however, we should also remember that we have a union to help us protect our constitutional rights.

As your president I cannot help but making one final pitch here. Well, two to be exact. First, please encourage family, friends and colleagues to let UF know your thoughts on academic freedom. In addition, please remind faculty how important union membership is in the state of Florida. As you might imagine, numerous colleagues are contacting us now asking about how to become members of UFF-UF. Building our chapter’s membership means that we can better support courageous colleagues like Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin as they engage in research that makes this nation a better and more equal place for all of us to live in.

UPDATE: On November 5 UF President Kent Fuchs reversed his administration’s decision blocking the three political science professors from testifying in federal court challenging the new state law that limits the use of ballot drop boxes and vote-by-mail practices. Given the publicity But Fuchs’ reversal seemed to make an exception in their case but retained the university’s recent policy that University of Florida employees cannot serve as expert witnesses in litigation where the state of Florida is a party.

A week later, on November 12, UF students and faculty held a spirited protest rally and declared that the battle with the administration over free speech and academic freedom continues.

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