GAINSWILL, Florida (AP) – Contrary to its previous position, the University of Florida said Friday it would allow professors to testify as experts in a lawsuit challenging new state law that critics say restricts voting rights.
The university said last month that three professors, Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, were barred from testifying in a civil-group lawsuit because it could lead to a conflict between the school and the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. which pushed the election law.
In a letter to the campus, the president of Kent Fuchs University said he is asking the office responsible for approving freelance professors to overturn a recent ruling rejecting a request for professors to act as expert witnesses in a Florida lawsuit. Fuchs said that outside work should be done in the free time of professors, and not on university resources.
The university’s announcement came after the university’s teachers’ union urged donors to withhold contributions and academics and artists to refuse invitations to campus until the university’s administration confirmed the right of school staff to free speech.
Refusing to testify would be “an attack on all of us,” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor who is president of the University of Florida union division.
The union also asked the university to apologize, reaffirm its support for voting rights, and declare that the school’s mission is for the good of the community.
Fuchs and Vice Chancellor Joe Glover said in a letter to the campus community earlier this week that the school will immediately appoint a working group to “review the university’s conflict of interest policy and examine it for consistency and fidelity.”
Also this week, the College Commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told news outlets that the organization plans to investigate the university’s previous decision to bar professors from testifying.
The President of the University of Florida reports to a Board of Trustees, which consists of six members appointed by the governor and five members appointed by the board of governors of the state university system. The Board of Governors, in turn, has 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Governor of Florida and approved by the State Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for years.
DeSantis’s office, in a statement earlier this week, denied any involvement in the decision to block faculty testimony.