UF researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data, says faculty report – Community News
Covid-19

UF researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data, says faculty report

The fear of upsetting state officials is pervasive among the University of Florida faculties, to the point that race-related references have been removed from course materials and researchers have felt pressured to destroy COVID-19 data, according to a report released Monday by a faculty. released Senate committee.

The six-member panel was convened three weeks ago to examine issues of academic freedom after the university decided to ban three political science professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state. But the findings go well beyond that episode and were so disturbing — especially regarding COVID-19 research — that the group decided to accelerate its work, said Danaya Wright, a constitutional law professor and former chair of the Faculty Senate who served in the committee served.

“We knew it was much more widespread,” Wright said in an interview Monday. “We knew there was more silence and pressure coming from above. The Great Above.”

The committee received a deluge of input from the faculty, from stories of attempts to serve as expert witnesses to agencies dealing with racial and COVID-19 research across disciplines.

The report discusses several “challenges” faced by UF researchers working on COVID-19 with an unidentified state entity. It describes both “external pressure to destroy data” and “barriers” to access, analysis and publication of the numbers. Taken together, the report said, those issues “impeded the faculty’s ability to contribute scientific findings during a global pandemic.”

The report further states that UF employees were told “not to criticize the Florida governor or UF’s policies regarding COVID-19 in media interactions.” It says they were told not to use their UF titles or affiliation in written commentary or to give oral presentations. And the UF Health faculty expressed concern about funding that would be at risk if they didn’t adopt the state’s stance on pandemic regulation in opinion pieces, the report said.

The data destruction allegations added a sense of urgency to the commission’s work, Wright said.

UF Law Professor Danaya Wright
UF Law Professor Danaya Wright [ University of Florida ]

“COVID research, it’s life and death not being able to do your job,” Wright said. “To be able to do your research that you’ve trained for so many years, to get that research on the table, put it on the shelf and ignore it and not take it to the academic community to get it there and see if it will do something good.”

The report also cites other allegations, including that “websites had to be changed, course syllabi had to be restructured, and the terms “criticism” and “race” should not be used together in the same sentence or document.”

All allegations were kept confidential for fear of reprisals.

“More problematic than the individual examples of pressure to suppress unpopular views or restrict research was the palpable reluctance and even fear on the part of faculty to speak out on these issues,” the report said. “There was great concern about reprisals and the feeling that anyone who objected to the state of affairs could lose their job or be punished in some way.”

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As a full-time faculty member, Wright said she feels an obligation to speak out, though she said she wishes the issue wasn’t seen as faculty versus administration.

“We’ve reached a point where many educators feel that wherever this pressure comes from, it interferes with our duty and loyalty and commitment and responsibility to seek the truth and make that knowledge available,” she said. “Faculties are very eager to do our work.”

The source of the pressure remains unclear, she said.

Just before the Thanksgiving break, a task force convened by the university came to a different conclusion on the issue of academic freedom, saying in its own report that “The University of Florida Board of Trustees ensures that the institution is free is from undue influence by outside persons or agencies through clear and consistently enforced policies and procedures.”

Asked on Monday to comment on the Faculty Senate report, the university declined.

The faculty report states that “the lack of documented rules and procedures” makes understanding denials of participation in outside activities difficult. It said the committee contacted members of the administration but that outreach “didn’t yield much new information”.

An administrator said he had been advised by the university’s general counsel not to comment due to pending lawsuits, the report said. Six professors, including the three involved in the initial indictment controversy, have filed suit in federal court for violations of their First Amendment rights.

Wright said she herself was told she could contact lawmakers as long as they weren’t from Florida regarding potential legislation she’s drafting regarding wills and trusts — an issue she says shouldn’t be controversial. She said deans are usually the bearers of the bad news, but most faculties believe the orders come from above.

“We don’t know how many people filtered it,” she said.

The report also features interviews with educators who have imposed self-censorship on their work, unsure how to proceed or that they may face consequences.

Wright, who has been at UF for 24 years, said the university has always had a culture of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But while grateful to the legislature for its support, she said the faculty works for taxpayers, who fund their jobs.

“Ultimately, our loyalty is to the people of Florida and to the search for knowledge,” she said. “If things up there are hindering us, no matter where it comes from, we can’t do our job. … We have one job as a faculty and that is to discover truth and knowledge, create and push the boundaries of human understanding and then disseminate that information to the public.”

The committee’s report also referred to comments made on Friday by Mori Hosseini, chair of the UF’s board of trustees, who criticized faculty members who have spoken out about academic freedom in recent weeks. He called others disrespectful and said some had abused their position. He said their behavior “will not last”.

The school’s response, including “hasty and limited” efforts to revise the policy, does not address bigger issues, the report said. Among them, it said, are “the serious reports of efforts to suppress the scientific and medical community’s research into and the professional duty to report evolving scientific information about Covid-19.”

The report said the commission hopes the university “will eventually address these concerns and help strengthen UF’s integrity and mission as a respected institution of higher education so that the people of Florida will benefit from a world-class institution that is they paid like that.” a lot to create and support and that they so deserve.”