Academic freedom in the United States is under attack.
In Florida, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made attacking the independence of the university system a cornerstone of his political agenda, seeking to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” and requiring all public colleges and universities to conduct annual surveys to measure students’ “diversity of point of view.” Under the guise of so-called academic freedom, DeSantis has instead made it clear that only those policies that serve the ruling party under his administration should be allowed.
Rather than stand as an independent institution committed to free speech, the University of Florida has acted as an active partner in undermining the university’s independence from political pressure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the university’s recent decision to ban three of our colleagues – Dr. Sharon Austin, Dan Smith and Michael MacDonald – from testifying in the Voting Rights case against Florida.
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According to the decision, the faculty was prohibited from pursuing “activities contrary to the interests of the University as an institution of the State of Florida.” It is not clear how increasing individual access to the vote “contradicts the interests of the university.” It is clear that the university has always excelled in pleasing the ruling party in Tallahassee by defending the rights of its employees.
On November 5, under tremendous pressure from faculty, alumni, media, current students and others, UF President Kent Fox reversed the school’s decision, allowing the three professors to testify. We welcome this decision – however, it shouldn’t take a massive public protest for the university to do the right thing. We can and must do better.
As students of Dr. Austin, Smith, MacDonald, and many other experts in the Department of Political Science, we spend much of our time researching and understanding the importance of democracy, as well as how it is threatened. To ensure that the University remains independent of the whims of political power in Tallahassee, we reiterate the demands expressed by United College of Florida, and call upon the University to:
1) Issuing an official apology to Dr. Austin, Smith, MacDonald, and any other employees were affected by their decision to violate the free speech rights of faculty and staff.
2) Reaffirm that the University will not, under any circumstances, seek to silence employees who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and to use their private expertise for the public interest, including as expert witnesses.
3) They affirm that they serve only the government in power of the State of Florida, and that they will reject any attempt by any party to influence the speech and action that is and is not permitted in the UF.
4) Ensure that they do not support and will actively fight the ongoing attempts to undermine the right of Florida residents to vote, especially young Floridians and Floridians of color.
In short, we call on UF leaders to exercise leadership in the face of a coordinated attack on our democracy. Anything less than that is not acceptable.
This article was written by James Fahey and 20 UF Political Science alumni: Brandi Martinez, Roshawn Colvin, Kristen Berry, Trithip Srisa-Nga, J. Sung, Giuliana Mochi, Dilruba Tass, Spencer Korb, Aniston McMahan, Danielle H Zingoteta, Jacob Caldwell , Morgan Hanson, Long Xiao, Ellen Hasen, Jonathan J. Chiarella, Xiao Sun, Raven Timoney, Peter Bradshaw, Robert Mermer and Hannah Jacobs.
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