Florida researchers say they felt "pressure to destroy" COVID-19 data for fear of Gov. Ron DeSantis

“We knew there was more silencing and pressure coming from above"

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published December 8, 2021 10:43AM (EST)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of Florida reportedly felt pressured to erase COVID-19 data while working on behalf of an undisclosed state entity, according to a report released by the Faculty Senate committee on Monday. 

The Miami Herald reports that multiple UF staff felt "external pressure to destroy" state coronavirus data, adding that there were undue "barriers" to accessing and analyzing the data. Ultimately, the report alleged, these barriers "inhibited the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic."

Moreover, UF staff were reportedly not allowed to "criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions," creating a culture of fear from within the university.  

"We knew there was more silencing and pressure coming from above. The Big Above," Danaya Wright, a constitutional law professor and former Faculty Senate chairperson, told The Tampa Bay Times. "There was grave concern about retaliation and a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way."

According to the Times, UF faculty have expressed concerns over funding being pulled if the university's activities didn't align with the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his dismissive posture toward pandemic restrictions. Over the past year, DeSantis has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the pandemic by barring mask and vaccine mandates in schools and businesses, 

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Aside from COVID-19 research, the report also details allegations of unspecified pressure within humanities departments around how to instruct students about issues of race and gender.

"Websites were required to be changed, that course syllabi had to be restructured, and that use of the terms 'critical' and 'race' could not appear together in the same sentence or document," the report notes. 

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The report's findings are part of a larger Faculty Senate committee inquiry into issues of academic freedom throughout Florida's higher education system. The inquiry was first opened by the panel three weeks ago after UF prohibited three political science professors from testifying in a voting-rights lawsuit against recent state policies pushed by DeSantis. The professors shortly filed suit against the university, asking the court to ban UF from blocking their testimony. 

RELATED: Florida professors can testify in voting rights lawsuit after university backs down

"Ultimately our loyalty is to the people of Florida and to the search for knowledge," Wright said. "If things above that are interfering with that, regardless of where that's coming from, we can't do our jobs. … We have one job as faculty and that is to discover, create truth, knowledge and push the boundaries of human understanding and then to promulgate that information to the public."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik was a former staff writer at Salon.

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