Tuesday, August 9, 2022

He Accused the University of Florida of Violating His Academic Freedom. The Provost Disagrees.

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In November, an associate professor at the University of Florida accused the institution of violating his academic freedom.

In meetings, university officials recommended that faculty members not use the words “critical” and “race” together in the title of a new doctoral concentration to avoid provoking a hostile legislature, according to Chris Busey, who teaches in the College of Education.

Two other faculty members had a similar impression, The Chronicle reported at the time. Another faculty member recently told The Chronicle he felt the same. “The climate of those meetings was chilly as hell,” said Travis C. Smith, a clinical assistant professor in the college.

Busey and the university’s faculty union filed a grievance over what they called an “egregious and unprecedented” violation. Critics saw the complaint as yet another example of University of Florida administrators intruding into the domain of the faculty to steer clear of Republican officials’ possible ire.

But Joe Glover, the provost, does not agree. He interviewed the administrators involved and found that “beyond a level of speculation, Dr. Busey and UFF did not put forward any facts supporting their interpretation of statements made at these meetings,” Glover wrote in a February letter denying the grievance. The concentration was approved through the university process without any changes to its title in December. “Therefore, that aspect of the grievance is moot,” Glover wrote.

Busey was not surprised by Glover’s findings, he said in a recent interview. He pointed out that Glover, in his letter, mentioned only interviews with other administrators. “When is the university going to engage in an act of self-recognition?”

Glover did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesperson said in an email that the institution’s investigation concluded there were no violations of the faculty union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, and that “we don’t have anything further to add.”

Though the grievance is dead — Busey and the union have not pursued arbitration — questions about how teaching and curriculum around race will be scrutinized on Florida’s flagship campus are very much alive. In April, Ron DeSantis, the governor, signed into law a bill that restricts how race and racism can be broached in college classrooms, among other places. The University of Florida and other public institutions must now navigate that terrain.

The proposed concentration — titled “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education” — came from a group of faculty and staff members, students, and others, called the Collective for Black Student Advancement. After months of work, the concentration was approved at the college level in the summer of 2021. But then it seemed to stall in the system. Faculty members wondered why.

At a September 2021 meeting, the reason became clear. Throughout the meeting, Chris J. Hass, the associate provost for academic and faculty affairs, evoked the state’s political climate, and gave the sense that the university was under close watch, according to instructors in attendance. The whole conversation had nothing to do with internal affairs at UF, Smith said recently. “It was all external stakeholders.” (Hass did not respond to a Monday morning request for comment.)

At that meeting, according to Busey’s notes, Hass said that using the words “critical” and “race” together was a problem. Faculty members present should consider renaming the concentration or delay putting it forward until the legislative session is over, he reportedly said. Hass said that those words, jointly, “are drawing attention. People are googling them,” according to the notes of Angela Kohnen, an associate professor in the college.

Hass said that in the then-upcoming legislative session, state legislators would look to get rid of critical race theory, according to Busey’s notes, and added, “We want to prevent a Trump-style ban.” Hass referenced Mark Kaplan, the university’s vice president for government and community relations, who wasn’t at the meeting. Hass said that per Kaplan, the college is viewed favorably by the state and should avoid doing anything to jeopardize that relationship, according to Busey’s and Kohnen’s notes. Hass also reportedly said that Kent Fuchs, the now outgoing president, serves at the pleasure of the Board of Trustees and can be removed at any time, for any reason.

Alyson Adams, a clinical professor in the college, remembers writing down on a piece of paper that the president and the provost “do not have your backs,” she told The Chronicle in November. Busey remembers Hass saying that Fuchs and Glover “are not willing to advocate,” and “any consequences for moving forward” will be on the dean and the college.

Meeting attendees also recalled that Hass more or less admitted that he could not make a persuasive case for faculty members of color to seek careers in Gainesville given the legislative pressures. According to Kohnen’s notes, Hass said something like, “They don’t want these issues studied,” referring, presumably, to state Republican officials, and that “the work is not valued here.” Kohnen directly quotes Hass as saying, “I don’t know how I can look at you and say you shouldn’t look for another job.”

Busey, a Black scholar who studies critical race theory, left the meeting thinking that he should do just that.

In October, faculty members met with Glenn E. Good, the dean, who had also been at the prior meeting with Hass. His message was more diplomatic, say the faculty members in attendance, but the bottom line was the same. According to Busey’s notes, Good relayed that the provost would support a concentration title that includes “studies of race” but not critical studies of race. Smith remembers Good presenting the same options that Hass did at the previous meeting — rename the concentration or delay putting it forward until later, though the dean ultimately put the ball in the faculty members’ court. According to Smith, in discussing the state’s political climate, Good said something like, “We don’t want to poke the bear.” (Good did not respond to a request for comment.)

Both Busey and Smith met one on one with Good later in October. According to Busey’s notes, at that meeting, Good expressed the sentiment that, “We do not want to inflame Tallahassee. Everything else is a go, and the leadership is behind our work if we just make those minor adjustments.”

To those faculty members, that solution was not a solution at all. It was an abandonment of core values. Busey and the faculty union filed a grievance, alleging that the university violated academic-freedom principles.

The grievance also says that Busey was “threatened with discipline if he used ‘critical race’ in his curriculum and program design.”

An associate dean in the college spoke with eight people who attended either both or one of the meetings, conducted a hearing, then moved the grievance up the chain to Glover. There was another hearing, and the provost interviewed Hass, Good, and R. Paul Duncan, senior associate dean of the graduate school. Duncan wasn’t at the meetings. But according to Busey’s notes, at the October group meeting, Good shared Duncan’s supposed perspective that the concentration’s current title would cause issues.

When asked by The Chronicle in November about what was allegedly communicated on his behalf, Duncan said by email that he has “not spoken or otherwise communicated with Dean Good about this matter. I have not spoken with the faculty member who feels he has been wronged. I did not, and would not say the kind of things attributed to me, and I don’t know how they might have been so specifically attributed to me.”

Glover concluded that neither Good nor Duncan told Busey that he had to change the title of the concentration, or told him that it would not be approved unless he changed the title, he wrote in his February letter. The provost also concluded, based on his conversations with Hass and Good, that no faculty members were threatened with discipline or told that they should look for employment elsewhere.

While some statements “may have been open to interpretation,” Glover wrote, “I find that they could not have reasonably been interpreted to be threats of discipline or suggestions that faculty leave UF.”

Adams, the clinical professor, said in a recent interview that though the entire meeting with Hass “had a threatening tone,” and though there were implied consequences for the college, she did not hear any specific threat of disciplinary action made against Busey or any other faculty member. Busey’s notes from the three meetings, which he previously shared with The Chronicle, do not mention a direct threat of discipline.

When asked, Busey said that threat was implicit. “If you or anyone else can’t understand that as … a faculty member of color, being called into a meeting by the associate provost where you’re told that your work can no longer be supported, that you may want to seek employment elsewhere, and if you move forward with the concentration as is, that there will be consequences” constitutes a direct threat, then “I don’t know what else to say to that.”

Smith, who is Black and studies Black students and historically Black colleges and universities, said that Hass was “direct as could be. The only more direct they could have been were to say, ‘You’re going to get fired.’” Smith left the meeting no longer wanting to be at the University of Florida. He’s taking a new job at Auburn University this fall.

Busey is still in Gainesville. He and the union decided not to escalate to arbitration, the next step in the grievance process, in part because the university approved the concentration, with its title intact. The ordeal had been both exhausting and time-consuming, he said. After the story broke, “relationships on campus with certain entities’’ have not been “particularly amicable.”

“I just want to work. I want to do my research. I want to be able to teach effectively, and mentor my students effectively,” Busey said. “And that’s ultimately what it boils down to.”

Beyond this concentration, Busey said, “we’re dealing with larger state apparatuses now that, through legislation, [are] seeking to eliminate courses of study like this, that are seeking to silence faculty, students, families, and communities from engaging in this type of scholarship.”

The type of “Trump-style ban” that university officials allegedly feared has come to fruition. House Bill 7, branded as the “Stop WOKE Act,” bans instruction that asserts, among other things:

  • that people are privileged or oppressed based on their race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • that a person “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of actions committed in the past by people of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
  • that virtues like “neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness” are “racist or sexist.”

Such teachings would amount to discrimination, under the law. “We believe in education, not indoctrination,” DeSantis said at a press conference, championing the measure.
Free-speech proponents, racial-justice groups, and academic-freedom advocates have widely condemned HB 7 as a massive infringement that will both make college instructors fearful and prevent students from receiving necessary lessons. Minutes after the bill was signed into law, a group that includes a high-school teacher and a University of Central Florida faculty member sued to challenge the bill’s constitutionality.

For now, public universities in Florida are adjusting to this new restrictive legal landscape. Recently, professors at the University of Florida received a presentation from the institution on how to understand the law.

“At its core, the bill’s message is: ‘No one likes to be told what to think. And that includes students,’” reads one of the slides. Instructors are “encouraged to facilitate free, vigorous, and open discussions, which enable students to reach their own conclusions without instructor bias,” says another slide. That means “not imposing personal views about controversial topics. This means effectively managing classroom discussion that can become heated.”

UF’s presentation also references an appropriations measure passed by the legislature during the 2022 session, Senate Bill 2524, which the presentation says “imposes large financial penalties on any university that violates the HB 7 requirements.” If a university is found in violation, the bill says, that institution “shall be ineligible to receive performance funding during the next fiscal year following the year in which the violation is substantiated.” A substantiated infraction is one determined “by a court of law, a standing committee of the Legislature, or the Board of Governors.”

Fuchs, the president, says in a video that the presentation makes clear that “you may continue to address important academic issues in your classes.” He thanked professors for their roles as “objective” educators and teachers.

A lot remains to be seen. The “concepts” banned under the new law, which takes effect July 1, are both expansive in what they could cover and ambiguous enough to leave lots of professors wondering where the line is, and what happens if they cross it.

Adams said that a lot of her colleagues “just feel unsure of what to do, and we’re not getting a whole lot of helpful guidance. It’s things like, ‘You can talk about race, but don’t put any value on what you’re saying.’”



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