Wednesday, February 23, 2022

How a Florida university system 'stacked' with mega-donors became 'blatantly political'. (Tallahassee Democrat)

A devious developer from Daytona Beach whose reach includes St. Johns County, University of Florida Board of Trustees Chairman MORI HUSSEINI is RONALD DION DeSANTIS's enforcer on the University of Florida campus. 

Their ruthless riding roughshod over human rights are decidedly despicable. 

Their wackjob works and pomps in academia are a stench in the nostrils of academia, and threaten UF's accreditation.

From Tallahassee Democrat:

How a Florida university system 'stacked' with mega-donors became 'blatantly political'

'Guardrails for democracy (are) being broken down' in academia, one former dean says

Jeffrey Schweers

Eight years ago, then-Gov. Rick Scott convinced Bernie Machen to stay on as president of the University of Florida in the midst of the search for his replacement. 

In return Machen got the Legislature to approve a preeminence program and millions in state tax dollars to finance UF’s rise to top 10 status.

Now, almost a decade later, UF has achieved Machen’s goal of being among the top five public universities in the nation, largely due to the efforts of new president Kent Fuchs and UF Board of Trustees Chairman Mori Hosseini, one of the most powerful unelected people in Florida.

But the prestige that came with climbing the mountain of U.S. News and World Report college rankings is in jeopardy over the decision to bar several professors from lending their expertise in court cases challenging key policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.

Mori Hosseini asks a question during a Board of Governors meeting in this undated file photo.

Previous coverage:

These decisions out of the administrative suite at Tigert Hall also threaten the university’s accreditation, which could affect its eligibility for millions in federal grants, its ability to recruit and hold onto highly sought after professors of national standing, and to pull in huge contributions from alumni, critics say.

“It’s a terrible policy and a disgrace to UF and the state, and they need to do something to resolve it quickly or lose their status,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida political science professor and former member of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. 

“It creates a permanent stain that lasts for decades,” Paulson added.

The move to muzzle professors testifying against the government in voting rights and mask mandate cases is “blatantly political,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors.

“All signs point to the governor and executive branch based on their stated justification,” said Mulvey, a department chair at Fairfield University in Connecticut. 

However, the governor's press secretary, Christina Pushaw, says DeSantis was not involved in any decision or policy to keep the professors from testifying.

"Neither the governor nor anyone in our office communicated directly or indirectly with UF regarding their professors’ requests to testify for pay in a lawsuit against the state," Pushaw said Thursday. "This is an internal UF issue and not the sort of thing that the executive branch would be involved in."

Furthermore, she said, DeSantis supports academic freedom.

"Per UF’s public statements, those professors are free to testify in the lawsuit against the state, but pursuant to the institution’s policy on conflicts of interest, they cannot receive financial compensation for their testimony against the state," she said.

Fuchs told the Palm Beach Post that while academic freedom is bedrock, the policy "is very simply about participating in litigation against your employer." Still, he said a newly convened task force would review the policy. 

"We have a tradition here recently of not approving any employee that is an employee of the state of Florida then serving as an expert witness in litigation against the state of Florida," Fuchs said. "That's been our practice. They can do it if they don't use university resources, do it not on university time and not compensated. But we're re-thinking that practice because most of the universities in the nation indeed have a practice of letting their employees participate as expert witnesses in litigation against their employer." 

A day later, Fuchs sent an email out to the campus community that he asked the Conflicts of Interest Office to "reverse the 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, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources."

Lawyers for the three political science professors denied permission to appear as experts in a case challenging new state election laws replied that while UF reversed its course, "the fact remains that the University curtailed their First Amendment rights and academic freedoms, and as long as the University’s policy remains, those rights and freedoms are at risk. We are continuing to assess our options.”

More:UF president: Task force to evaluate policy barring testimony to be announced soon

University of Florida president Kent Fuchs delivers comments during the announcement of UF reaching the Top 5 universities in the country, during a ceremony at Alumni Hall on the UF campus in Gainesville, Fla. Sept. 13, 2021.

University of Florida: Don't 'fracture our relationship with state government'

This year, top administrators have made clear that bucking the governor can create problems for UF. 

Fuchs, for instance, repeatedly said he had no power to require students and faculty to wear masks.

In September, he told the UF Faculty Senate, which was considering a statement critical of the governor’s COVID policies, that anyone who represents UF shouldn’t do anything to “rupture or fracture our relationship with our state government and our elected officials."

Daniel A. Smith, Professor & Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Florida

If he or any other person who represents the university “becomes an adversary of state government and our elected officials, we'll lose that ability to influence those decisions that affect us,” he said.

That message was reiterated in emails denying political science professors Daniel E. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin permission to be expert witnesses for plaintiffs fighting the government’s newly approved election laws, which limit drop boxes and change vote-by-mail rules.

More:A tale of two election laws: While Georgia saw a corporate backlash, response is muted in Florida

Such “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,” David Richardson, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, told Smith. 

Before their complete reversal, UF administrators backed off an outright ban, letting the political science professors provide expert testimony without pay.

Their decision to let faculty testify as expert witnesses without compensation was also met with criticism from several academic institutions and professors, and seemed weak in light of the discovery that five other professors were also denied permission to be expert witnesses, including one who said he was doing it for free.

“Their requests were denied because they were adverse to the university’s interests,  conflating university interests with those of the executive branch,” Mulvey said. “It’s a complete violation of the principles of higher education to support the common good.”

Dr. Sharon Wright Austin is professor of political science at the University of Florida, and an editor of the Cambridge University Press' American Political Science Review.
Michael P. McDonald, Professor of Political Science, University of Florida

The administration should instead build a firewall protecting faculty from undue political interference, she added, instead of making decisions on what is best for the governor.

“When Tigert Hall (UF’s administration building) looks at Tallahassee, they are trying to anticipate how Tallahassee is going to feel about my syllabus,” said Paul Ortiz, president of the UF faculty union.

“Full professors and deans walking through campus are saying they wonder what DeSantis will think about this program, that syllabus, this diversity training,” he continued. “We have an administration that believes their job is to adhere to DeSantis’ worldview.”

How Florida politicized its academia

The political ties that bind become more apparent when you look at the Board of Trustees that oversees policy and finances as the university’s legal overseer and final authority.

Eleven of the 13 board members are Republican donors who have contributed millions to the Republican Party and GOP candidates over the past two decades, records show. The other two members are the faculty senate chair and the student body president.

The governor appoints six of its members, and the State University System — made up of 14 political appointees — appoints the other five.

A November 2020 editorial by the Independent Florida Alligator, using data from, showed that 11 trustees donated $2.3 million to Republican candidates, conservative political action committees and funds.

They also gave $350,000 since 2015 to Scott, now a U.S. Senator, and $235,000 to Donald Trump.

Mori Hosseini smiles as college presidents present their input at a meeting of the Florida Board of Governors at FSU

Hosseini, a Daytona Beach housing developer, gave $447,000 to Republican candidates in the last 18 years. In the last three years, he gave $106,000 to DeSantis through two of his construction companies, lent DeSantis the use of his private jet for campaigning and has served as an adviser to the governor.

Hosseini is also the one who forwarded the resume of Dr. Joseph Ladapo to the president of UF Health, kicking off a fast-track hiring process to coincide with the governor’s announcement that he was appointing the UCLA professor as his new surgeon general.

More:DeSantis mega-donor, UF Board of Trustees chair supplied Ladapo's resume, fast-tracking surgeon general's hire

Because of Hosseini's strong and steady support for UF, especially in getting funding for its preeminence initiative, faulty and administrators see him as the true president of UF, and Fuchs as his factotum, Ortiz said.

"Think about how this must look to Mori right now, sitting on top of the world," Ortiz said. "He took three nationally renowned professors out of the elections case. Politically speaking, this is a real victory for DeSantis."

Having someone as powerful as Hosseini going to bat for UF and gaining the support of the governor and the legislature is great, said Noah Fineberg, a UF junior and president pro tempore of the Student Senate.

“But it’s concerning when that tradeoff results in negative press for the university,” he said.

There's also the concern that what the legislature gives, it can also take away.

"If they do something embarrassing to the administration or the legislature, the governor and legislature have been known to retaliate by withholding funds," Paulson said.

Political influence: A statewide trend throughout Florida higher education

UF is not the only state university facing political pressure, said Candi Churchill, executive director of the statewide United Faculty of Florida.

“All the university boards are stacked with political appointees and mega-donors,” Churchill said. “I would say that the denial of professors to be expert witnesses for the public is part of a larger trend of trying to control higher education and the public school system.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida on November 3, 2021.

A board member at Florida Atlantic University, Barbara Feingold, said she wasn't speaking just for herself at a board meeting in May when she suggested a tenure review of faculty include information about professors' political views.

“I speak not just for myself but for the governor," she said. "I can’t think of any other position out there where people have a job for life.”

Ed Slavin's note:  United States Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals Judges, U.S. District Court judges, federal administrative law Judges, federal, state and local government employees and tenured faculty members are ALL protected by all have life time tenure subject to good behavior. 

Feingold was appointed by DeSantis to replace her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, after his second term expired. Feingold, who died in October, was a huge DeSantis supporter and GOP megadonor.

Meantime, the governor and legislature have signed off on laws requiring an annual political bias survey of faculty and allowing students to record their professors with the goal of filing a complaint against them.

“While claiming to be champions of free speech, they are denying the rights of professors pushing political and ideological views contrary to those of the administration," Churchill said.

The administration’s latest actions are hypocritical given its long history of letting faculty members lend their expertise to court cases, Fineberg said, especially since just two years ago the administration was praising Smith’s involvement in an almost similar case.

“This is of grave concern to myself and other students who see this as an overreach by the governor,” Fineberg said. “It’s an issue when partisan politics encroach (on) your ability to do your job.”

The legislative and executive “micromanagement of public universities is happening all around the U.S., and is not unique to Florida,” said Robert Jerry, former dean of the UF Levin College of Law.

“We are seeing guardrails for democracy being broken down in many aspects of our lives,” Jerry said. “Universities are caught up in these powerful movements, and this is the most recent episode of what’s happening around the country." 

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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