U. of Florida Dean Says He Was Directed to Reject Professor’s Request to Testify Against the State
The University of Florida dean who rejected a political scientist’s request to offer expert testimony because it may “pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida” said Monday that his decision was made at the direction of senior administrators.
Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, all UF scholars, were each told in October that they would not be allowed to be expert witnesses in a voting-rights lawsuit against the state. News of the rejections provoked international outcry, and within days the university reversed course.
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The University of Florida dean who rejected a political scientist’s request to offer expert testimony because it may “pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida” said this week that his decision was made at the direction of senior administrators.
Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Wright Austin, all UF scholars, were each told in October that they would not be allowed to be expert witnesses in a voting-rights lawsuit against the state. News of the rejections provoked international outcry, and a week later the university reversed course.
David E. Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, handled Smith’s request, and on Monday, he shed new light about his involvement in the controversy at the fall meeting of the CLAS Assembly, a shared-governance group.
His remarks suggest that the decision to bar professors from testifying against the state may have come from the top of UF. And it comes amid persistent questions about how the campus thrust itself into the center of a fiery debate about the limits of academic freedom.
At the meeting, which was recorded, Richardson showed faculty members a chart outlining how outside activities are reviewed for approval at the university. Sometimes, according to the chart, the president’s cabinet is consulted.
Because Smith is chair of the political-science department, his request was sent to Richardson, his dean. Richardson told faculty members that after he got Smith’s request, he “inquired” with central administration, because in the case for which Smith’s testimony was sought, the defendant was an “officer or an official of the state government.” Richardson sent along the information, which was “subsequently reviewed,” said the dean, and he was informed that “UF policy on this had been formulated, and it was passed to me to implement.” Richardson was “effectively informed that the UF policy would be for me to disapprove” Smith’s request, the dean said.
Richardson said he asked for “further discussion, negotiation, or understanding of the background of the policy” but that he “did not receive that opportunity to have that discussion.” The language sent to Smith explaining the disapproval — that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida” — was provided by the general counsel’s office, the dean said. That office, Richardson said, told him to talk to Mark Kaplan, vice president for government and community relations. They spoke, Richardson said, and he got the same language from Kaplan.
In the end, Richardson said, he could choose to reject Smith’s request, thereby carrying out UF policy, or approve Smith’s request and be in conflict with UF policy. “Either decision,” he noted, could’ve had “negative consequences for the college and the university — that was clear.” A dean being in conflict with central administration, and “potentially the Board of Trustees, would not have good consequences for the college.” (Smith, McDonald, and Austin filed a lawsuit against UF, arguing the university violated their free speech rights. Richardson said on Monday that because of the pending litigation, he needed to be careful about what he said.)
When news broke about the rejections, Richardson said he heard from colleagues who “are far more knowledgeable about conflict of interest than I,” and it became clear to him he needed to learn more about conflicts of interest and public-employee issues. After educating himself, “I concluded that I would reverse my decision.” On November 3, he told the president and the provost he’d be doing just that. Two days later, W. Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, announced that he had reversed the rejections. (Richardson said he was not implying his decision contributed to Fuchs’s.) Fuchs also appointed a task force to consider changes in the university’s conflicts-of-interest practices.
“I’m very comfortable with the decision ultimately made, both by myself and by the president,” Richardson said.
But he was “extremely disappointed that I could not avert the recent outcomes regarding the conflict-of-interest matter,” Richardson said. “They have had an impact on you, on our faculty, and on our university. And I only wish that in the early stages, I’d had the insight and persuasiveness to change the university’s direction in this matter.
Going forward,” Richardson continued, “I will, of course, be far more circumspect in reviewing conflict of interest, insofar as I continue to do that, and will always endeavor to protect the rights … and privileges of our faculty.” He emphasized the importance of safeguarding academic freedom.
He also expressed remorse. “I really regret the fact that this episode has shaken the trust that you have in me.” If the time comes that he can “no longer guide the college due to its internal or external realities,” he will “step aside for new leadership.”