A congressional subcommittee has launched an investigation into the University of Florida’s conflict-of-interest policy, after professors were told that testifying against the state in legal cases was “adverse” to the university’s interests.
In a letter to University of Florida President Kent Fuchs on Thursday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said the panel has opened a probe into the policy, saying it “undermines the academic and free speech values that are essential” to higher education.
“We are concerned that UF is censoring its faculty based on viewpoint, which would set a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of its own commitment to freedom of expression,” said the letter signed by subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who serves on the panel and is a graduate of the University of Florida.
The subcommittee “is investigating the extent to which your university’s actions have undermined the integrity of academic freedom and interfered with employees’ constitutional right to speak freely as private citizens on matters of great public concern,” the letter said.
The panel seeks “to understand the extent to which federally funded universities use conflicts-of-interest policies to censor employees who oppose the interests of the political party in power,” Raskin and Wasserman Schultz wrote.
The subcommittee is part of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which is the “principal oversight committee of the House of Representatives and has broad authority to investigate ‘any matter’ at ‘any time’” under congressional rules, according to the letter.
The congressional probe is the latest development in the controversy over UF’s conflict-of-interest policy, which came to light in a legal challenge to a state election law that, among other things, makes it more difficult for Floridians to vote by mail.
A court document filed in the lawsuit in October revealed that the university told the professors their request was denied because “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict” for the university.
After the university’s move to bar political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith from testifying drew national headlines, UF leaders hurriedly took a series of steps to walk back the decision.
Fuchs announced that the tenured professors would be allowed to be paid to testify as experts for the plaintiffs if they did so on their own time and did not use university resources. Fuchs also quickly assembled a task force to probe the conflicts-of-interest issue.
Fuchs’ reversal came the same day the political science professors filed a lawsuit challenging the policy that gives the school discretion in blocking faculty members from testifying against the state in legal cases, accusing Fuchs and other university leaders of “stifling” their First Amendment rights. Three additional professors later joined the legal challenge.
The university’s attempts to stop professors from testifying came after initiating a “conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest policy” in July 2020.
Thursday’s letter from the subcommittee asked Fuchs for detailed information about the creation of the policy and the individuals involved in its establishment.
The university intends to cooperate with the probe, UF spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said Thursday.
“We have received the letter and have acknowledged receipt to the committee. We are working to respond within the guidelines we received,” she told The News Service of Florida in an email.
The subcommittee asked for a log of all requests from professors to engage in “outside activities” that were denied dating back to 2015, along with a “detailed explanation for the denial” and the names, titles and roles of anyone involved in the decisions.
The congressional panel also asked for information about whether Fuchs, UF Provost Joseph Glover, or any member of the university’s board of trustees “were made aware of any request prior to denial, or were involved” in the decisions.
The subcommittee also is seeking all communications between university administrators, including Fuchs, and anyone in the executive office of the governor, the Florida Department of Education, or the Florida Legislature regarding faculty participation in administrative or judicial proceedings related to the state.
The university’s task force on the conflict-of-interest policy is holding a series of meetings this month and is slated to give Fuchs recommendations about potential changes by Nov. 29.