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University of Florida reverses on professors testifying against DeSantis-backed voting bill

UF President Kent Fuchs’ climbdown marks a major turnabout from the university. Critics accused the school of stifling academic freedoms. | University of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The University of Florida is backing down from its attempt to block professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against a controversial voting bill pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

University President Kent Fuchs said in a statement Friday that he asked the school’s Conflict of Interest Office to reverse its decision barring professors from providing expert testimony in legal challenges involving the state regardless of personal compensation — as long as they are not using school time or resources.

Fuchs’ statement marks a major turnabout from the university, which had faced a nationwide blowback since the news broke last week that the flagship Florida university sought to prevent the academics from testifying. Critics accused the school of stifling academic freedoms and claimed the university was acting as a political tool of DeSantis, especially since professors had been allowed to testify as experts in other voting rights cases.

Before Fuchs’ about-face, University of Florida faculty members called for drastic steps against the state’s flagship school, including asking donors to stop sending their cash to the university and to allow professors to be able to testify without strings attached.

They also asked that the school apologize to the professors in the voting lawsuit, Daniel Smith, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald, “for violating their academic freedom and their rights as workers.”

“We’ve got to save the University of Florida,” Paul Ortiz, president of the United Faculty of Florida’s UF chapter and a history professor, told reporters. “This is really a crisis moment in our republic.”

Additionally, the union called on University of Florida leaders to “formally declare” that the school, which this year became a top-5 ranked university, is independent of political interests and to oppose any voter suppression efforts throughout the state.

Faculty at the university and across Florida said that blocking the professors from testifying is a symptom of a larger problem emerging across the state.

They point to the university’s top officials, including big-time Republican donors, fast-tracking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick for surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, and recent legislation requiring public colleges and universities to survey students, professors and staff about their political beliefs.

“Where does it stop?” Brian Cahill, a lecturer with UF’s Department of Psychology, said Friday. “Will they start to screen my syllabi and tell me what I can and cannot teach?”

The University of Florida’s decision to bar the professors from testifying in the voting rights case was first detailed in court filings amid a tug-of-war over whether legislators and the governor’s office had to turn over certain information to the groups suing the state. The groups were also seeking to depose a handful of Republican legislators as well as someone from DeSantis’ office.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker late Thursday sided with DeSantis and the Legislature and quashed the request, saying much of the information was not relevant to the ongoing litigation.

“Whether the governor’s office played a role in the University of Florida’s decision to prohibit professors from serving as witnesses in this case … does not tend to make any fact supporting the parties’ claims or defenses more likely,” Walker wrote. “Although this case is about the alleged degradation of core democratic values, Plaintiffs seek to explore allegations of the degradation of different, no less important, democratic values that are not at issue before this court.”

Walker also noted in a footnote that “to be clear the court is not saying there is no issue here” but said it wasn’t before the court at this time. However, he added that it could wind up before a judge if there was an investigation by authorities into whether or not there was an effort to intimidate testimony in the case. “Because such allegations are not at issue before me now, this court declines to allow plaintiffs to turn over these particular rocks,” he wrote.

Florida Democrats have join with academics in railing against the DeSantis administration over the incident, although the Republican governor denied any involvement.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a challenger for DeSantis in the upcoming gubernatorial election and a University of Florida graduate, joined with faculty in asking university supporters to withhold donations. Another DeSantis opponent, Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, said the governor is attempting to silence academics who disagree with him.

“The writing is on the wall: Gov DeSantis is looking for blind loyalty from institutions from across the state,” Crist told reporters Friday. “Under DeSantis, Floridians either have to comply or suffer the consequences.”

Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

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