Just when the University of Florida academic freedom fire cooled a bit, Board of Trustees Chairman Morteza “Mori” Hosseini splashed some fuel on it Friday.
Hosseini at Friday’s meeting read a statement blaming faculty for the policy used to prohibit three political science professors from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, praising state legislators for the money provided to UF and citing the media for “incomplete” reporting of the story.
“We saw that some (faculty) have taken advantage of their positions. I am speaking here of faculty members taking second jobs using the university’s state resources for their own personal gain. I am speaking about faculty members who use their positions of authority to improperly advocate personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others,” Hosseini said.
Hosseini added, “To this I say — enough. This behavior is unacceptable. It is disrespectful not only to the taxpayers of Florida, whose hard-earned dollars pay faculty salaries, but it is also disrespectful to these faculty members’ hard-working colleagues — the ones who are doing their jobs honestly and fulfilling their missions.”
When Hosseini was done, other trustees thanked him.
UF Professor Paul Ortiz, the president of the faculty union, responded sharply in an email to the Gainesville Sun.
"This statement is an insult to the faculty who, under great duress, have guided the institution through the most challenging crisis in its history during the global pandemic. We expect an immediate apology," Ortiz said. "The statement was written by an individual or individuals who do not understand the role of intellectual freedom in a democratic society. The United Faculty of Florida is dedicated to creating a university that works in the interests of the entire public and not just the whims of the Thought Police in Tallahassee."
The issue of academic freedom blew up in October
The issue of academic freedom blew up in October when it became public that professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith were stopped from giving paid expert testimony in a voting rights case against the state because it would be "adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution."
It has become a nationwide debate that mixes academics, speech, politics, prestige and money — a situation that could imperil UF’s recent designation as a top 5 public university by U.S. News and World Report, accreditation and the flow of private and public money.
Since the case against the three professors, the silencing of other faculty members for their involvement with litigation regarding state political issues has come to light.
The latest is a grievance filed this week by the faculty union on behalf of a College of Education professor claiming UF leadership would not approve coursework with titles including the words "critical" and "race" in an attempt to prevent political conflict.
Hosseini did not specifically address the cases currently at issue. He said trustees and UF support academic freedom to teach, research, publish and exercise their rights as citizens.
However, Hosseini did indicate that state lawmakers are paying attention to what is happening at UF.
“Let me tell you, our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither is this board. And we shouldn’t,” Hosseini said.
Media reporting of the controversy was also cited by Hosseini, who seemed to take issue with stories noting that Hosseini has contributed to DeSantis campaigns and has hosted fund-raisers for him.
“While the media has suggested that the governor has played some role through his relationship with me in UF’s decisions on outside activities and conflicts of interest, let me be clear: That is 100% false,” Hosseini said. “Neither I, any other member of this board, the governor, nor any legislator had any influence on specific decisions on outside activities and conflicts of interest. Period.”
Graduate student housing plan approved
Also on Friday, trustees approved a plan to relocate graduate student housing because existing sites on campus are slated for demolition.
Despite the approval, graduate students asked for changes to the plan, saying an anticipated rent of $950 a month is too high and that UF should ensure a new bus route, shuttle service or other accommodations for transportation are made.
Maguire Village and University Village South, two graduate and family housing options on the western edge of UF's campus, are slated for destruction as part of the university's Campus Development Agreement. They will officially close July 1, 2023, though already empty units have been closed to residents ahead of the deadline.
The buildings are reaching the end of their life span and are beyond renovation, according to university officials and documents. But residents, advocates and local government officials have voiced concern over the demolition plan's financial and community impact to UF's graduate students and their families.
Some have called to save the housing and reverse course while others questioned what UF will do to replace the hundreds of lost affordable beds.
According to a presentation given at the meeting by Chris Cowen, chief financial officer at UF, the university is working on a proposed partnership with Provident Resources Group and Capstone Companies to acquire, renovate and rebrand an existing apartment community near UF to replace the units at UVS and Maguire.
The exact facility has not yet been determined, but using criteria like being within walking or biking distance to the campus and having convenient access to public transportation, proximity to grocery stores and a safe and relatively quiet location, the meeting agenda documents identify two options being considered: Varsity House Apartments, located at 1720 SW 37th St. and favored and West 20 Apartments, located at 3527 SW 20th Ave.
A tentative opening plan could see the new site ready for UF's graduate students in August of 2023, the documents state, with below market rental rates for the first year and "reasonable limitations on annual increases in rental rates thereafter."
Cowen said in his Thursday presentation that estimated new rental rates for units with two bedrooms and two bathrooms is $975, 30% down from the current rental rate of $1,358.
He acknowledged that cost is higher than the prices of UVS and Maguire units, which range around $600.
"Those are just unachievable levels in the marketplace," he said, but added that UF will continue to work toward further reducing rates.
Several graduate students spoke at Friday's meeting with concerns about the cost of rent and about transportation.
Graduate Student Council President Paul Wassel said 56% percent of the salary of a grad student getting a minimum stipend would go to housing.
"The number is unsustainable and frankly unethical," Wassel said. "If the university is going to increase the price of affordable housing approximately 57%, then we must begin to discuss salary increases or how these supplements are valued."
BOT Vice Chair Tom Kuntz said, "This is probably not perfect, but I'm really happy with the involvement of so many within the university to come up with a solution to a problem that we've heard graduate students come to speak to this board about."
In a Thursday email to the Gainesville City Commission, advocacy group Save UF Grad Housing wrote that the housing replacement proposal "fails on every level," including location and commute, cost, safety and loss of community and ecological value from the two on-campus villages.
"To scramble to find a housing alternative for displaced people months after deciding to close the villages is clearly the wrong order to do things and has caused immense and unnecessary mental stress on residents," the email stated. "We think that granting a 'stay of execution' on Maguire/UVS is the best path forward as that will give everyone more time to think about what is best for the future."
Baby Gator expansion updates
Baby Gator, an on-campus daycare-to-pre-kindergarten school favored by parents who work or study at the University of Florida, has a waiting list is hundreds of families deep set to be eliminated by an estimated $35 million expansion.
The plan, according to a presentation given by Jodi Gentry, vice president for UF Human Resources, aims to increase Baby Gator's enrollment from its current 306 children to 766 in fiscal year 2024 with things like a series of building renovations and developments, new hires and an increase in parent fees.
Its first phase, approved at the last BOT meeting and estimated to cost $4 million, includes renovations and building expansion to Baby Gator's Lake Alice facility's east and west sides during the upcoming fiscal year 2022. It would expand parking and allow 60 more children to receive care, according to the meeting agenda.
Gentry told the board Thursday that construction for the Lake Alice expansion will hopefully begin this summer and take about 10 months.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: UF trustees defend administration's stance on academic freedom