Kratom has been the subject of controversy, as scientists and policy makers weigh its potential benefits against the possibility of addiction and abuse. Oliver Grundmann, the UF professor, had concluded that kratom, at least for the time being, should not be reviewed for global classification as a controlled substance; he sought approval to sign a letter in his role as a faculty member stating as much. But Wimsett wasn’t sure it was a good idea.
“I do note the DEA has listed kratom as a drug of concern,” Wimsett wrote to administrators, describing the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, “and it would be important to know where the governor and the state legislature stood on this. If taking this position were adverse to UF’s interests (i.e., adverse to the interests of the State of Florida) it would not be something we’d want them doing.”
Grundmann got the green light to sign the letter. But the discussion about kratom, which has not been previously reported, laid out a rationale with far-reaching implications: A professor opposing the state could be a problem for UF. Six weeks after that exchange, news broke that the university had applied this logic to deny three political- science professors’ requests to participate in voting-rights litigation against the state. That decision, first reported by The New York Times, set off a firestorm over academic freedom and free speech. A week later, under enormous public pressure, the university reversed course.
A Chronicle investigation reveals that the political-science denials reflected a more deeply ingrained practice than has been previously reported. Reviews of a professor’s outside activity, such as serving as an expert witness, were typically led by the university’s Conflicts of Interest Program. But awareness of the university’s skeptical treatment of politically sensitive cases was significantly more widespread. Administrators in the general counsel’s office, government relations, the provost’s office, UF Health, the research office, and the deans of the law school and College of Liberal Arts & Sciences all had some knowledge of the approach. There is little evidence, however, that people across these units sufficiently weighed the trade-offs of this practice, which pitted academic freedom and free speech against short-term political considerations.
This article is based on more than 1,000 pages of public documents and court filings, recordings of legislative hearings and collective-bargaining sessions, and more than 30 interviews with professors, outside experts, and administrators. Taken together the interviews and documents portray a university’s radical departure from what many assume to be its purpose: Creating and disbursing knowledge without fear or favor.
In 2020, a select committee of the Florida House of Representatives began a series of hearings, interrogating ties between state research institutions and foreign entities. Concerns about such ties had been churning for a while at the federal level, but Florida’s state-level committee was the first of its kind. And lawmakers had reason for concern.
A University of Central Florida lab assistant had shipped submarine parts to China. Her boss, a professor, fled the country, and she was eventually sentenced to federal prison. A renowned cancer center in Tampa cut ties with six scientists, including its chief executive, over allegations that researchers had hidden connections to China. And at the University of Florida, a longtime chemistry professor was discovered, among other things, to be moonlighting as a vice president at a Chinese university. In total, four UF faculty members resigned or were fired after falling under suspicion.
To Chris Sprowls, speaker of the Florida House and the Republican representative who chaired the select committee, these stories felt like something out of a spy novel. Openness and collaboration are hallmarks of the nation’s research success, but those ideals had left universities vulnerable, Sprowls surmised. “We all want to do great things for the U.S. and for the world,” he told The Chronicle. “But that doesn’t mean that we get to invite the robber over for dinner, leave the house, then let them clean us out while we’re gone.”
During legislative hearings, lawmakers identified deficiencies in how universities monitored professors’ outside work. UF, for example, had relied on an antiquated system in which professors submitted disclosures on paper with little centralized oversight. How were universities going to better defend themselves, lawmakers wanted to know? Marshall M. Criser III, chancellor of the state university system, gave an answer. Universities needed an electronic system for assessing conflicts, he said at a March 2020 hearing. And that system needed to be manned by independent experts, people who will decide if you’re in conflict with your employer’s best interest. That employer, Criser said, is the State of Florida, as well as state universities.
The system Criser described sounded a lot like the one already being developed at the University of Florida. And pressure was mounting at UF to get it up and running across the university.
The new system had a wonky name: The UF Online Interest Organizer, or Ufolio for short. Professors would submit requests for outside work into the electronic system, where analysts would decide whether the activity was permissible.
Wimsett was chosen to bring Ufolio to the masses, overseeing the newly established office known as the Conflicts of Interest Program. A longtime UF employee who had previously worked in the College of Medicine, Wimsett had considerable experience in conflict analysis. His marching orders were to get everyone in Ufolio by the end of the fiscal year, ensuring universitywide adoption of the centralized vetting process and its attendant standards for approval. The stakes were high. Wimsett wrote in a spring-2020 email that state and federal authorities “believe we are not doing enough to safeguard the integrity of the institution respecting foreign influence, IP theft, and worse.”
Though some professors welcomed Ufolio’s convenience, Wimsett met some resistance. One law professor provided “surprisingly sharp” feedback, Wimsett said in an email, rebuking his office for an “insipid process.” But Wimsett pressed on, with the backing of UF’s top brass. When his aggressive timeline encountered some reluctance in another college, the provost told Wimsett to forge ahead: “You’ve got the moral high ground,” he wrote in an email.
Wimsett’s task was made all the more urgent in March 2020 with the passage of new legislation, which would soon become law. Senate Bill 72 includes language — backed by the select committee — requiring researchers at state universities to disclose outside activities and financial interests. Professors need to “receive a determination” that the activity “does not affect the integrity of the state university or entity.” Failure to disclose could result in termination.
Wimsett observed in an email that the language represents a “much more aggressive stance toward nondisclosure.” Faculty who have disclosed honestly “will have a good insurance policy against some of the discipline contemplated by the new law,” Wimsett wrote in May 2020, whereas “faculty who have not disclosed will be in a precarious position.”
The idea that Ufolio would help faculty members stay out of trouble was a common talking point among administrators at the time. Brian Cahill, an associate instructional professor of psychology, remembers sitting in on bargaining sessions in which the faculty union and university officials argued over aspects of Ufolio. UF officials “always framed all this stuff … in terms of: they’re protecting us. Like, this is a protection for us, too,” Cahill said. He remembers assurances that the goal of collecting this information was not to hand out denials lightly.
But “if the goal isn’t to deny us, then why do you have to collect all this data, right? Obviously the goal is to tell us at some point, ‘You can’t do this.’ Otherwise you wouldn’t care about all this stuff.”
Kenneth B. Nunn objected. He and some fellow UF law professors were planning to sign an amicus brief in a case that challenged a state law related to felons’ voting rights. “I’m sure you will not disagree,” Nunn replied, “that advocating on the behalf of ex‐felons is a laudable public-interest end that falls within the purview of typical activities pursued by criminal-law and -procedure professors.”
Rosenbury’s expressed position would mean “that a criminal-law professor could not engage in the practice [of] criminal law at all, without approval, as criminal defense is always adverse to the state,” he continued.
In a later reply, the dean offered a solution, of sorts. She “confirmed” that the university would approve the activity, so long as Nunn and others participated as individuals. That meant the brief must “clearly” indicate that any law school or university affiliation is included for identification purposes only.
The mandate made the professors outliers among their national peers. In early August, Nunn and three other UF professors joined the amicus brief, without their affiliations, and with a footnote by their names indicating they were signing in their personal capacities. Of the dozens of professors who joined the brief, they were the only ones not to include mention of their institutions. (In another brief, the four professors’ names appeared with their law school and university affiliations. But that brief included disclaimers noting that the information was for identification purposes only.)
A kernel of an idea in the law-school debate proved to be important. When the university developed Ufolio, it flagged for scrutiny any activity that might “adversely” affect the university’s interests. That amorphous language gave the conflicts-of-interest office wide discretion.
“There’s this catch-all phrase, ‘adverse to UF’s interests,’ which suddenly could just include everything,” said Danaya C. Wright, a law professor and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate.
Neal H. Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky, said there are important distinctions between universities and other state agencies. “If you go to other governmental agencies, you’re not going to find academic-freedom statements,” said Hutchens, who writes about higher-education law. “You’re not going to find a statement at the DMV that says, ‘When you are handing out car registrations, you’re supposed to engage in philosophical conversations.’ Those kinds of statements are not adopted in other governmental agencies because that’s not their function. But colleges and universities, at their core, are supposed to be places of exploration and discovery.”
Public-college governing boards, like Florida’s Board of Governors, were created in part to establish a buffer between universities and the state, Hutchens said.
“When you say that the university is no different than any other state agency,” Hutchens said, “you’re setting up a very hierarchical system where employees are essentially subject to complete levels of control. But you can’t really have that and have a real university … There is a choice to be made.”
There is little evidence, though, that the weighty choice confronting UF was discussed or considered before the controversy spilled into public view. John G. Harris, a former chairman of UF’s department of electrical and computer engineering, said that he does not recall any mention of academic freedom when his department participated in a Ufolio pilot program. “I, and the faculty in my department, would have been flabbergasted if something that we were doing would have been blocked because of political interest,” said Harris, who is now dean of the College of Engineering and Science at the Florida Institute of Technology, a private college in Melbourne, Fla.
W. Kent Fuchs, UF’s president, and Morteza (Mori) Hosseini, the university board’s chairman and a longtime Republican donor, have said that Governor DeSantis had no influence on the expert-witness denials. The Chronicle’s investigation found no evidence to the contrary. What is clear, however, is that a series of bureaucratic determinations, emanating from the quotidian corners of UF’s administrative wing, placed strict new limits on what academic researchers could do. But none of this appeared to have been on the mind of the university’s highest-ranking research officer. David P. Norton, UF’s vice president for research, told The Chronicle in a recent interview that his focus regarding Ufolio was limited primarily to the “mechanics” of the system.
“We were just trying to get our hands around, ‘How do we enforce the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the policy that we have?’ without the nuances philosophically of something out there that may be at the boundaries,” Norton said. “We were mostly interested in things that were clearly of concern for the university relative to its conflict-of-interest policies and state ethics laws. That was, at least for my office, our focus — and not so much in terms of that extension to freedom of expression.”
Norton voiced his unequivocal support for academic freedom. At the same time, he said, questions about expert-witness testimony are “not my lane.” “We don’t weigh in on that,” he said. “It’s legal. Testifying in court is outside of my expertise. I would defer to having others weigh in on that.”
Wimsett, who issued most of the expert-witness denials, declined an interview request. So did Amy Meyers Hass, the university’s general counsel and Ryan R. Fuller, deputy general counsel. Steve Orlando, a university spokesman, said in an email that the lawyers “won’t be commenting because of pending litigation.” Orlando, though, offered a statement: “The conflicts-of-interest office would have denied the request of any litigation in which UF or the state was the adverse party to the side requesting expert services because UF is a state entity. This is recognized in state law and, historically, through collective-bargaining agreements.”
Joe Glover, the university’s provost, also declined an interview request. In response to a detailed synopsis of The Chronicle’s findings, Glover provided a short statement via email. “When faculty raised concerns about academic freedom,” he wrote, “the university acted quickly to clarify that it embraces our faculty’s right to academic freedom and does not consider viewpoint as a determining factor in considering whether to approve or deny outside activities.”
Glover also noted that a special committee of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the university’s accrediting agency, had reviewed UF’s revised approach to conflicts and found that it raised no questions about academic freedom. The committee did, however, determine that the university had paid too little attention to the potential problems with its processes regarding academic freedom before the controversy.
If there was a lack of discussion about these issues, it cannot be attributed to a lack of awareness among UF administrators. Public records show that the university’s posture toward politically sensitive cases was understood across a wide range of people in multiple units. Wimsett, who led the office, forwarded key decisions and the underlying rationale to “COI staff.” The general counsel’s office and Mark Kaplan, vice president for government and community relations, were directly involved in providing language for one of the political-science professors’ denials, according to David E. Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, who spoke at a faculty meeting about having issued the denial. While the Conflicts of Interest Program sets, maintains, and enforces policy on conflicts of interest, the dean said, “it would be inappropriate to view them as an independent body. On potentially, say, controversial issues they take cabinet-level consultations when needed,” referring to Fuchs’ presidential cabinet.
Richardson and Kaplan declined interview requests.
Goldhagen’s case set off a flurry of conversation among university officials, who weighed what it would mean to deny the professor. Goldhagen was a vocal critic of the governor’s executive order aimed at prohibiting school mask mandates, and the professor had been quoted in recent news articles on the subject.
On August 10, 2021, Mark L. Hudak, chair of the pediatrics department at Jacksonville, informed Linda R. Edwards, dean of the College of Medicine there, that Goldhagen planned to participate in two cases “that are contesting the governor’s ban of mask mandates.”
“He intends to do this as a private citizen,” Hudak wrote, “but his expertise is inextricably bound to his medical experience and his UF employment.”
Soon others were alerted, including Bill Young, now chief legal officer at UF Health; Wimsett; Eric H. Conde, an associate dean in the College of Medicine at Jacksonville; and Randall C. Jenkins, senior vice president and general counsel for UF Health. (Jenkins is the stepbrother of Jack Stripling, one of the authors of this article.) The following morning, Goldhagen submitted disclosures in the Ufolio system, requesting approval to participate in the cases. Less than an hour later, Young emailed Wimsett: “Do you have five minutes to talk today or tomorrow? Txs.”
Several of the emails that followed, some of which included a UF lawyer, were heavily redacted by the university, which cited an exemption for “work product.” But the emails establish that Wimsett consulted a bevy of university officials in the hours before denying Goldhagen. The circle of people on the emails include: Fuller, the deputy general counsel; Glover, the provost; Kaplan, the government-relations official; Colleen G. Koch, dean of the College of Medicine in Gainesville; David R. Nelson, president of UF health.
Fear of blowback seems to have been palpable. At a politically contentious moment in the pandemic, UF was about to shut down one of its own experts. And he wasn’t going to be happy about it. In an email to Fuller, Wimsett sent links to two news articles in which Goldhagen was quoted in support of mask mandates. In one article, Goldhagen said that sending children into unmasked environments was equivalent to putting them in a “toxic swamp of Covid.”
“He’s not shy,” Wimsett wrote. “ … This could go south very quickly.” (Wimsett then sent the links to Young, the chief legal officer.)
In another exchange, Hudak, the department chair, asked Wimsett what would happen if Goldhagen participated in the litigation without approval.
“In my opinion Dr. Goldhagen’s advocacy is on the side of angels,” Hudak wrote. “It is morally persuasive and based on the science. There is no internal conflict of interest. This appears to be a political impasse.”
“I appreciate your comments,” Wimsett replied. However, “engaging in an outside activity without approval subjects one to disciplinary action.”
Minutes later, Wimsett denied Goldhagen’s requests in Ufolio, explaining that “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.”
The language of the five professors’ denials was not identical, but each rejection reflected the underlying position that a professor’s challenging the state in court was a conflict because UF itself is a state actor. But it didn’t appear to matter whether the state or governor were even named defendants. Opposition to a state policy position was enough to trigger denial. One of the mask-mandate cases, for example, involved parents suing the Duval County School Board, challenging a requirement that grade-school children wear face coverings. As Wimsett explained in his denial, participating in “litigation contrary to the state’s position” was a nonstarter. “The State of Florida has articulated a position against mask mandates,” Wimsett wrote to Rathore. “The Duval County School Board’s mandate is contrary to this position.”
(The language of this denial has not been previously reported, and Rathore has not publicly discussed the matter. He declined interview requests from The Chronicle.)
It was around this same time that UF officials discussed the proposal related to kratom. Grundmann, a clinical professor, had first asked an associate dean and a department chairman whether he could sign the scientific-consensus letter in his capacity as a UF faculty member. The request was eventually forwarded to five administrators, including Wimsett. In an email to Norton, the research vice president, and Chris J. Hass, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs, Wimsett said that it was important to establish “where the governor and the state legislature stood” on kratom. But Kaplan, the government-relations official, said he did not have “significant concerns about faculty members with subject-matter expertise on this topic signing on to this scientific consensus letter.”
Meyers Hass, the general counsel, was consulted about the kratom letter as well. Wimsett said that her office would have “more immediate awareness of things on the legislature’s radar.” But it is unclear what Meyers Hass said; the university redacted her response, saying it was an attorney work product. (Amy Meyers Hass and Chris Hass were previously married.)
In the end, the kratom case concluded without incident. Wimsett did his own research, uncovering a few filed bills but nothing with “traction.” Grundmann signed the letter. In emails to The Chronicle, he and Christopher R. McCurdy, another UF professor who joined the letter, said that they did not experience any pushback and had never been told by anyone at UF that they could not speak about their expertise.
In a broader context, though, the exchanges over kratom provide a window into how political considerations figured into administrators’ conversations about what professors should or shouldn’t do. The job of the Conflicts of Interest Program, as outlined by Wimsett in these emails, included researching legislative bills related to a professor’s expertise. In the emails, no one appears to directly challenge this approach.
David S. Altman and Elizabeth Lynch, who worked as analysts with Wimsett in the conflicts program, told The Chronicle that they were not privy to conversations about the politically sensitive cases that have caused such a stir. But when asked specifically about researching legislative bills to evaluate conflicts, Lynch said, “I can’t speak to what Gary did. But I certainly don’t do that.” (Lynch is now acting director and Ufolio administrator in the office.)
The news landed like a thunderclap. A complex story that had been percolating for years in the bowels of a university bureaucracy was easily reduced to its simplest form: One of the nation’s top public universities, rather than risk the good graces of an ascendant conservative governor and his allies, had muzzled its own professors. Whether UF officials had done so on direct orders or out of reflexive obedience was beside the point. In some ways, the second option might have been worse.
The bombshell report came amid other concerns about political interference at the university. Around the time the denials were issued, UF made waves with a fast-track hire of Joseph A. Ladapo, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who was DeSantis’s choice for Florida surgeon general. The doctor, largely known for his skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines and lockdowns at a time when many public-health experts had embraced such measures, had been a polarizing pick for surgeon general. With a tenured position, UF sweetened the pot, supplementing Ladapo’s government salary and bolstering his credibility in the state. Emails obtained by the news media showed that Hosseini, UF’s board chairman and a DeSantis adviser, had sent Ladapo’s résumé to the president of UF Health before Ladapo’s hiring by the university.
“It’s all related,” said Goldhagen, the pediatrician, who was told by UF that he could not participate in masking cases. “It’s all part of the continuum of how a university could prostitute itself to the whims of a politician whose policies resulted in the morbidity of thousands of Floridians.”
The denials did not deter Goldhagen. He participated anyway in two masking cases, saying the issue was too important to ignore.
After The Times article broke, the university said that it was only blocking the political-science professors from paid work as expert witnesses; they were free to do so pro bono. Intentionally or not, the explanation steered the conversation back toward the kinds of fears that had set UF on this path to begin with — fears of “moonlighting” professors doing something other than their taxpayer-funded jobs. It wasn’t a sustainable argument, though. Goldhagen, for one, said he did not expect to be paid for his work in the masking cases.
On November 5, a week after the Times article, UF’s president reversed course, announcing that the professors would be permitted to serve as expert witnesses in cases involving the state regardless of compensation. By this time, the university was under siege. The three political-science professors filed a federal lawsuit, charging that their First Amendment rights had been violated. (Goldhagen and Nunn, the law professor, would soon join the suit, along with Teresa J. Reid, another law professor.) The university’s accrediting agency had pledged to investigate, and a congressional subcommittee would soon follow suit with its own inquiry.
Academics across the nation condemned the university’s actions. Among them were a group of 15 professors, who have served as expert witnesses in election-related cases and work at some of the nation’s most highly respected institutions, including the Universities of Wisconsin at Madison and of Virginia, and Princeton. In an email to Fuchs, UF’s president, the professors wrote, “Because the university is not a defendant in this litigation, it cannot claim that its interests are adversely affected by the professors’ engagement. Rather, administrators are taking the position that faculty must act in a way that does not affect the interests of a funder of the university. In doing so, the university has transformed academic freedom — the right to conduct research and teaching without political interference — into something that faculty have so long as their work meets with the approval and policy goals of state political leaders or influential university donors.”
Even one of Fuchs’s predecessors let him have it. Charles E. Young, who led UF from 1999 through 2003, emailed the president and Glover, saying he was “f—— mad,” using dashes to avoid profanity. “If correct,” Young wrote, “that article makes it clear that our university has sold its soul to the politicians.”
In early 2022, as the controversy cooled, Wimsett quietly left the university, joining a private law firm in Gainesville. Brian J. Power, who had been director of administrative services for the conflicts program, also moved on, taking a director position with the dean’s office at the UF College of Medicine at Jacksonville. (Power did not respond to emails from The Chronicle.)
In Wimsett’s place is Carolyne St. Louis, who, in May, became UF’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest. St. Louis cannot speak to how the office approached conflicts before her arrival, she said in a recent interview. But political considerations are not part of the university’s evaluation process now, she said. “We’re not looking at political interests at all when we’re reviewing these disclosures,” said St. Louis, who previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The political climate should not impact whether or not somebody gets approved or not. Then it’s not a fair process.”
Orlando, the university spokesman, said that UF is in the process of drafting new policy language, which will explicitly affirm that the university does not discriminate against professors based on viewpoint. The university has “never considered and would not consider viewpoint” in assessing conflicts, Orlando said in an email, but will affirm that for “clarity.”
These changes come in the wake of a stinging rebuke, issued in January, by a federal judge. In a 74-page order, Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida said UF could not enforce its amended policy to block professors from serving as expert witnesses in litigation involving the state. Describing UF’s new policy as a “dolled-up version” of the old one, Walker said the policy continued to suffer from “myriad constitutional infirmities.”
In a damning comparison, Walker conjured oppressive images from China, expressing consternation that UF had asserted “unlimited discretion” to restrict professors’ speech. “It’s worth pausing to note just how shocking defendants’ position is,” the judge wrote. Walker took note as well that the university had never “disavowed” its old policy.
Anyone expecting contrition from university leaders has been left wanting. In his most substantive public remarks on the case, UF’s board chairman focused primarily on scolding unnamed professors for a litany of seemingly unrelated transgressions. Some faculty members, Hosseini said at a December board meeting, had used their positions of authority to “improperly advocate personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.” “Let me tell you,” he said, “our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither is this board.”
In a recent opinion column published in the Tampa Bay Times, Fuchs and David C. Bloom, the immediate past chair of UF’s Faculty Senate, described as meritless any allegation that UF had been “kowtowing to political influence from the governor’s office.” The column takes no overt position on whether the UF had erred in its initial approach, beyond noting that UF leaders had “immediately dealt with the situation.”
While abiding by Judge Walker’s order, UF officials continue to fight it in court on appeal. In a recent legal brief, a lawyer representing the university argued that the “plaintiffs lack injury.” UF had reversed its decision, allowing them to testify. The judge’s order, the brief argues, prevents the university from enforcing a conflicts-of-interest policy that UF is required to have under state law. The professors are not the victims here, the lawyers said: “UF and defendants, in contrast, have been harmed.”
Lindsay Ellis contributed to this report.