Accreditation board affirms new UF rules after academic freedom dispute
Accreditation board affirms new UF rules after academic freedom dispute

Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The accreditation agency over the University of Florida this week reported that recent changes enacted by school leaders have helped quell academic freedom concerns on campus that arose when three professors were originally blocked from testifying as expert witnesses in a high-profile case against the state.

A special committee assembled by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS, to review the allegations against UF determined that the university’s new policies, including an appeals process, are “efficient and compliant with state and federal regulations without raising questions regarding academic freedom.”

The 14-page report noted, as a general opinion, that UF mid-level managers “had no concerns about academic freedom within the institution” yet also warned that they “were concerned about the possible effects of pending state legislation.”

“While there are still unresolved concerns among individuals at the institution regarding complex aspects of how conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and consideration of viewpoint may erode academic freedom, the institution has endeavored in good faith to put safeguards and corrections in place,” wrote the special committee, led by GP "Bud" Peterson, president emeritus and regents professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The school officials took the report as a win for the university some seven months since the controversy arose at Florida’s flagship school over professors testifying as experts in cases challenging voting laws pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“The outcome affirms the university's commitment to the academic freedom of its faculty members and the First Amendment’s guarantees of the right of free speech,” the university wrote in a statement Friday.

Breaking it down: SACS launched a probe into UF earlier this year after receiving what the agency calls “the receipt of unsolicited information” — or news reports claiming the university “may not have protected the academic freedom of faculty members.” This move by SACS, along with the board’s intervention in a university presidential search in 2021, angered Florida Republicans and helped fuel legislation that is set to shake up the state’s accreditation process.

In the report released Thursday, the SACS committee reported that UF “has operated with integrity” and that the university “has taken steps to protect academic freedom.” This comes after the Gainesville-based university adopted new rules such an appeal process for all denials of faculty seeking to testify in court cases or partake in other outside activities. The university also established a committee to review any proposed denials of expert witness cases, including when the state is a party, in hopes of preventing a similar problem from arising in the future.

“All parties interviewed recognized that changes have been made that will strengthen the process and provide more appropriate involvement of faculty,” according to the report.