Threat to academic freedom at U Florida

The administrators at U FLA have no business telling faculty or students what research
materials may or may not be allowed. That fact marks an important–and, it would seem,
gradually disappearing–difference between universities and business corporations.
The AAUP continues to be concerned about two University of Florida graduate students who
were prohibited from using post-earthquake video footage from Haiti in their master’s thesis.
Jon Bougher and Roman Safiullin are both students in the Documentary Institute in the College
of Journalism and Communications.
When the earthquake devastated Haiti in January, the two students were in a small town close to
the epicenter, shooting footage for their master’s thesis. Both were evacuated from Haiti but vowed
to return to complete their filming. They did so later using private, non-university funds.
In the interim, however, the university had put in place a ban on “UF-sanctioned, -sponsored,
or -approved trips” to Haiti for students.  Bougher and Safiullin were told that their final thesis submission could not include any post-earthquake footage because they had defied university rules
in traveling to Haiti after the university’s ban.
The university’s provost, Joseph Glover, said: “We informed them that they could not travel in
a university capacity to Haiti. They were told clearly they could not use material they obtained post-earthquake in their thesis.”
Commenting in Inside Higher Education, Cary Nelson, AAUP president, said the university
“was well within its rights to bar use of its funds for travel to a given country.” But because the students chose to travel without using university funds, “academic freedom should have protected their right to use the Haiti footage in their thesis. The authority to accept the content of the thesis
must reside with the students’ faculty advisers and their department, not with the administration.”
In a letter to UF provost Glover, (.pdf) Nelson stated that “academic freedom does not permit restrictions on research students and faculty conduct when ethical or legal violations are not at
issue. Graduate-student research toward a degree is, of course, subject to approval by students’ advisors and their department. It is a basic principle of academic freedom that such approval of intellectual content resides with qualified faculty, not with administrators. I am informed the two students had that approval; indeed, they had begun work in Haiti before the earthquake. The administration’s suggestion that they change their topic represents a further troubling intrusion into matters that are properly a faculty supervision responsibility.”
Nelson also expressed concern about the implications of Glover’s decision for faculty work.
“One might well worry,” he notes, “that if the UF administration is willing to bar the use of post-earthquake Haiti research in a master’s thesis, the administration would also be willing
to prohibit its inclusion in a faculty member’s tenure, promotion, or merit-determination file.
Such an action would seem to set a very troubling precedent that could put academic freedom
broadly at risk.”
Nelson calls for the UF provost to permit acceptance of the students’ master’s theses.
The AAUP will continue to monitor the situation at UF closely.

The AAUP Online is an electronic newsletter of the American Association of University Professors.  Learn more about the AAUP. Visit us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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