GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Reversing its previous position, the University of Florida said Friday that it would allow professors to testify as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new state law that critics say restricts voting rights.
The university last month had said that the three professors, Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, were prohibited from testifying in the lawsuit brought by civic groups since doing so would put the school in conflict with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which pushed the election law.
In a letter to the campus, university president Kent Fuchs said he is asking the office responsible for approving professors’ outside work to reverse the recent decision rejecting the professors’ request to serve as expert witnesses in litigation involving the state of Florida. Fuchs said the outside work would have to be on the professors’ own time and not use university resources.
The university’s announcement came after the union for faculty members at the university urged donors to withhold contributions and scholars and artists to turn down invitations to campus until university administrators affirmed the free speech rights of school employees.
Not allowing them to testify would be “an attack on all of us,” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor who is president of the union chapter at the University of Florida.
The union also had asked the university to issue an apology, affirm its support for voting rights and declare that the school’s mission is for the public good.
Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in a letter to the campus community earlier this week that the school will immediately appoint a task force “to review the university’s conflict of interest policy and examine it for consistency and fidelity.”
Also this week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges told news outlets the organization planned to investigate the university’s previous decision to prohibit the professors from testifying.
The University of Florida’s president answers to its board of trustees, which has six members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the state university system’s board of governors. The board of governors, in turn, has 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Florida governor and confirmed by the state Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for many years.
DeSantis’ office, in a statement earlier this week, denied being behind the decision to block the faculty members’ testimony.