The University of Florida submitted Tuesday a formal response to its accrediting agency’s inquiry about recent revelations that professors hadn’t been approved to act as expert witnesses in lawsuits against the state. The university told the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities that it was not subject to external political influence when making decisions about the professors’ expert witness requests, saying, “The decisions that have led to the media reports were all made internally. The university’s established governing board, the Board of Trustees, was not involved in the decision-making process in any way, and entities and/or individuals outside the university’s established governing system had no effect on the recently reported institutional action.” The university also said it “preserves and protects academic freedom and its concomitant responsibilities in regulation, operationalizes it in its bargaining agreement with the United Faculty of Florida, and its UFolio process for the approval of outside activities.”
University president Kent Fuchs also on Tuesday approved the recommendations of a task force appointed to review UF’s conflict-of-interest policy in light of the controversy. Key recommendations include the presumption that faculty or staff requests to testify as expert witnesses will be granted in cases where the state of Florida is a party, and that this presumption may only be overcome “when clear and convincing evidence establishes that such testimony would conflict with an important and particularized interest of the university, which the university must set forth in writing.” The recommendations also include an appeals process for request denials.
David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, lawyers for the six professors who are now suing the university over their previously denied requests to offer expertise in legal challenges to the state laws, said in a statement, “We are disappointed but not surprised that a task force created as a public relations tool has returned with window-dressing recommendations. The proposed changes address only the narrow issue of expert testimony, and even on that limited topic, they fail to cure the constitutional problem with the university’s conflict of interest policy. That policy still allows the university to restrain the faculty’s free speech based on impermissible reasons and in the university’s discretion.”