UF affirms no external influence in faculty expert testimony decisions

President also accepts recommendations from conflicts of interest task force

Nov. 23, 2021

The University of Florida today submitted its response to an inquiry from its accrediting agency, affirming unequivocally that it was not subject to external influence when making decisions related to denying some faculty members’ requests to testify as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party.

In its report to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the university responded as indicated to the following questions:

  • To what extent was the recently reported institutional action affected by entities and/or individuals outside the institution's established governing system?
    • None. These actions were not affected by entities or individuals outside of the university’s established governing system.
  • To what extent, if any, was the institution's established governing board involved in the decision-making process prior to the reported action?
    • None. The university’s governing board was not involved in this decision-making process at any time.

The university went on to state in the report:

“The decisions that have led to the media reports were all made internally. The university’s established governing board, the Board of Trustees (BoT), was not involved in the decision-making process in any way, and entities and/or individuals outside the university’s established governing system had no effect on the recently reported institutional action.”

In the report’s conclusion, the university stated:

“The University of Florida Board of Trustees ensures that the institution is free from undue influence by external persons or bodies through clear and consistently enforced policies and procedures. The University of Florida also preserves and protects academic freedom and its concomitant responsibilities in regulation, operationalizes it in its bargaining agreement with the United Faculty of Florida, and its UFolio process for the approval of outside activities.”

The full report can be found here https://assets.webadmin.ufl.edu/media/SACSCOC%20Special%20Report.pdf.

Also today, UF President Kent Fuchs approved the recommendations of a presidential task force appointed to review UF’s conflicts of interest policy and is asking the appropriate campus offices to proceed with implementation.

In an email sent to the campus community today, Fuchs noted that for some employees, collective bargaining agreements may need to be modified before implementation. The approved recommendations can be found here https://fora.aa.ufl.edu/docs/147/Final%20Report.pdf.

The seven-member task force, chaired by Provost and Chief Academic Officer Joe Glover, comprised representatives from a variety of backgrounds across the university, including foremost experts on the First Amendment and academic freedom.

The task force worked quickly, submitting its work to Fuchs a full week before its Nov. 29 deadline, responding in detail to Fuchs’s request, with substantive recommendations largely focused on expert witness testimony and more broadly applicable process recommendations, such as the creation of an appeal process.

The task force was given complete independence to develop whatever recommendations it believes are in the best interests of the university.

Key recommendations include:

  • Affirmation of the academic freedom of faculty when performing their duties as teachers and scholars.
  • Affirmation of the free speech rights of faculty and staff to comment on matters of public concern set forth by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution.
  • A presumption that faculty or staff requests to testify as expert witnesses will be granted where the state of Florida is a party, especially in cases that challenge the constitutionality, legality, or application of a Florida law.
  • The presumption could only be overcome “when clear and convincing evidence establishes that such testimony would conflict with an important and particularized interest of the university, which the university must set forth in writing … ”
  • Permission to testify could be denied when the time commitment, when combined with other outside activities, “would cumulatively amount to a conflict of commitment.”
  • A variety of process improvements, including an appeal process and a Provost’s Advisory Committee.

“I am grateful to the task force members for their diligence and transparency in addressing this very important matter,” Fuchs said.

Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover on Nov. 1 announced the appointment of a task force to review the university’s conflict of interest policy.

Fuchs announced the members of the task force on Nov. 5 and asked UF’s Conflicts of Interest Office to reverse its decisions on recent requests by UF employees to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the state of Florida is a party and to approve the requests regardless of personal compensation.

The President’s Task Force was charged with providing recommendations to Fuchs concerning the university’s conflicts of interest policy, particularly regarding employees’ requests to serve as expert witnesses in litigation against the state of Florida is a party. Its recommendations are expected to serve as the foundation for how UF applies the policy in similar requests moving forward.

UF News November 23, 2021