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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The University of Florida Flubs Academic Freedom
In October of last year, the New York Times broke a disturbing story: The administration of the University of Florida had barred three faculty members from testifying as expert witnesses in a voting-rights case brought against the state of Florida. The following month, The Chronicle‘s Lindsay Ellis revealed that the same administration had prohibited a University of Florida physician, Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, from testifying in a case against Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s refusal to permit mask mandate in public schools. The picture seemed clear: An aggressive right-wing governor was putting pressure directly on university officials to toe the Republican party line.
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In October of last year, the New York Times broke a disturbing story: The administration of the University of Florida had barred three faculty members from testifying as expert witnesses in a voting-rights case brought against the state of Florida. The following month, The Chronicle’s Lindsay Ellis revealed that the same administration had prohibited a University of Florida physician, Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, from testifying in a case against Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s refusal to permit mask mandates in public schools. The picture seemed clear: An aggressive right-wing governor was putting pressure directly on university officials to toe the Republican party line.
Now, new reporting by Emma Pettit and Jack Stripling goes some way toward confirming that picture, while also complicating it. Pettit and Stripling discovered that UF’s attempt to quash faculty speech extended well beyond just expert legal testimony. In the case of another faculty member, the clinical professor Oliver Grundmann, the administration adjudicated whether or not he could sign a scientific consensus letter about kratom, a tropical tree with pain-relieving properties. (The letter concluded that kratom should not be reviewed for global classification as a controlled substance.) Grundmann was eventually permitted to sign.
And the plot thickens: Enabling this oversight are institutional mechanisms developed in part to protect not against DeSantis’s local political enemies, but against inappropriate relationships between American researchers and Chinese institutions. I spoke with Pettit and Stripling about what they discovered — and what they hope to learn in the future.
What most surprised you as you were reporting?
Pettit: We got several batches of public records back in different phases, and in one batch of those records we got that exchange over kratom — over whether a professor could sign a scientific consensus letter related to his subject-matter expertise. Before we saw those emails, a big question we had was, “How embedded was this philosophy — that a professor taking a stance that ran counter to the state was a potential problem?” Was it only being thought about in the narrower realm of serving as an expert witness in a court case? But that exchange showed that this approach was broader than we had thought.
Stripling: These were not one-off events. What happened at the University of Florida reflected a deeply ingrained orienting philosophy about politically sensitive cases. It was widely discussed, widely understood, and to our knowledge, seldom challenged.
When the New York Times first broke the Florida story, I had assumed that Ron DeSantis was sort of single-handedly responsible. To what extent does it seem to you that this is being directed by the governor’s office?
Pettit: DeSantis’s office and the university and the chair of the Board of Trustees have all said that DeSantis has had nothing to do with these denials, and we didn’t find anything to the contrary. By all the evidence we have, the decisions were being made in house — perhaps in a defensive crouch. There’s no evidence of any edict or any communications coming from the governor’s office itself. What you see in the kratom example is [then-assistant vice president for conflicts of interest] Gary Wimsett saying, essentially, “It would be good to know where the governor or where the legislature stands on this.”
Stripling: We were never able to get a straight answer about why this was an approach the university thought was worth taking, but the university, in terms of money, has a pretty good relationship with the legislature and the governor right now, so it’s not a far walk to assume that they’re not trying to upset that relationship.
Pettit: One obstacle that Jack and I ran up against was that we got a lot of records back with almost everything redacted. It’s clear that the day before and the day of Dr. Goldhagen’s denials, there was a lot of conversation happening among the general counsel’s office, officials at UF Health, and various administrators. There’s an email to the provost, an email to the dean of the medical school — and they are entirely redacted. That was frustrating. We want to know more.
Help me understand the China situation. So the federal government has been concerned about various kinds of illegal cooperation between American faculty members and China — everything from IP theft to espionage. For Florida, were concerns around China just a pretext to institute rather more local forms of surveillance?
Pettit: There’s only so much that’s knowable. But 2018 was a turning point on the federal level regarding concerns about relationships between researchers, particularly biomedical researchers, in the U.S. and China. The NIH sent out letters to more than 10,000 grantee institutions telling them to mind the store better. Then in 2020, state lawmakers in Florida also started interrogating foreign influence on research institutions. Within that context, the University of Florida created a system to better monitor and catch these sorts of things, called UFolio.
Stripling: It used to just be your department chair was looking at some slip of paper. Now you’ve got a team of lawyers and analysts who are looking, in consultation with the general counsel’s office and the government-affairs office. Did this happen for a good reason? Probably. Did it also create a context in which politically sensitive cases might be looked at with more scrutiny? Definitely.
Do you think this sort of thing is likely to happen elsewhere? Or is Florida an outlier?
Stripling: We didn’t do reporting outside of UF, so I can’t speak to that with great authority. But the factors that made this possible are present in other states: a high degree of sensitivity about political backlash based on ever-decreasing dollars for public institutions combined with systems that incentivize centralized oversight of professors’ activities. Those things exist all over the country.
When I first read your piece, “kratom” sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know what it was. Now I notice the word everywhere, on the outsides of vape and tobacco shops.
Pettit: I notice it now when I walk down the street, in the windows of head shops.
Is it fun? Have you tried it? How does one ingest it? Do you smoke it?
Stripling: I haven’t tried it.
Pettit: We didn’t do that kind of research.
I’ll look into it and report back.
The Intellectual Essay Now
Last week, the Library of Congress hosted its annual National Book Festival, a day-long event featuring conversation about arts and culture. I’d hoped to attend in person, but a close Covid exposure relegated me to watching from my couch. The highlight, for me, was a panel on “The Essay in an Age of Speed,” moderated by Liberties’s managing editor Celeste Marcus and featuring Morten Høi Jensen, Shawn McCreesh, and Becca Rothfeld. You can watch a recording of the event here, at 6:25:00. Some highlights:
On influence. Rothfeld: “People I return to, and in fact read them before I sit down to write, because they’re good stylists, include Bernard Williams, the philosopher, Dwight Macdonald, who is the sassiest, funniest writer ever, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lionel Trilling, William Gass … And there are lots of people I’d rather die than imitate.” Jensen: “James Wood. When I first moved here, as an undergraduate, and I first started reading his essays, it was a true revelation. I did not know that you could write that way about books — that a book review could be a work of art.”
On the reader. Rothfeld: “I don’t actually devote a lot of thought or attention to imagining my readership, maybe because if I did, I would be too terrified to write another word.” Jensen: “There was a great TV interview with Philip Roth many years ago where he is asked ‘What do you want to do for us, the reader?’ And I want to say, like Philip Roth, rather snootily, ‘I can’t worry about the reader.’” McCreesh: “I sort of disagree … I don’t think about what the subject is going to think of it. The only one that matters in that relationship is the reader … My loyalty is to the reader of the magazine.”
On being surprised. McCreesh: “You have to constantly remind yourself to be open to surprises. That’s the whole point.” Rothfeld: “I only figure out what I think when I write … You should surprise yourself. You should allow the arguments to take you to a surprising conclusion if that’s where they take you. It’s no fun to read an essay the conclusion of which is obvious at the outset. It’s only fun to read an essay when there’s a narrative drama in addition to an argumentative drama.” Marcus: “You can tell when a writer sits down and writes something and they think that they know everything about it and have not been surprised … There’s a kind of kinetic energy that’s missing.”
Reading Recs. Rothfeld: “I’m reading Bernard Williams, who is dead. He’s an amazing philosopher who everyone should read. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy is an amazing book. I also recommend the recent novel Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years. It’s one of the smartest treatments of sex I’ve seen in years.” Jensen: “Darryl Pinckney has a book coming out about his relationship with Elizabeth Hardwick … I’m very excited to read that. And next year the New York Review of Books Classics is publishing a Danish novel called The Liar by Martin Hansen, which is a great 20th-century novel I’m excited to see in English.” McCreesh: “Liz Smith’s memoir of her political life. It was really fun and funny.”
On Twitter. Rothfeld: “I’m always surprised by people’s ability to extract the absolute opposite of what the words on the page say … But that’s just a liability of writing.” Jensen: “I have not had the pleasure of being dragged on Twitter yet.” McCreesh: “I’ve been ripped apart on Twitter before. It’s kind of exhilarating, actually. It’s like being tickled.” Jensen: “We should paraphrase Kingsley Amis and say that a mean tweet should ruin breakfast, but not lunch.” Rothfeld: “You have to constantly remind yourself not to think about it, because if you do, why write at all?” McCreesh: “You have to remember that only crazy people tweet.”
- “Expanding a program that at best was an expensive failure would be frank insanity. One could not possibly invest research funding less wisely.” That’s the Rutgers microbiologist Richard Ebright arguing against the preemptive surveillance of wildlife for “spillover viruses” like Covid-19. In The New Yorker, Matthew Hutson reports on the controversy.
- “Allegations that Catholic residents wanted to remove the King James Bible from the city’s schools led to widespread rioting, with pitched battles between Protestants and Irish Catholics on the streets of Philadelphia featuring stones, torches, sabers, and muskets. At least 15 Philadelphia residents died in the fighting.” In The Point, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder offers a fascinating overview of debates about public schooling and indoctrination from the middle of the 19th century to the present. (Snyder writes often for the Review — check out his most recent essay for us, “What Are the Limits of Academic Freedom?”)
- “Her bold, mystical paintings immortalize the Mazatec shaman María Sabina and the Chilean musician Violeta Parra, as if Giotto were commissioned to produce a series of broadsides for the Latin American left. Her portrait of Karl Marx, recently acquired by the Guggenheim, envisions him haloed with roses in a dense, dreamy forest where women make love.” In the New York Times Magazine, Carina del Valle Schorske on the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña.
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