Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [ University of Florida ]

After a year when tensions flared over academic freedom and faculty autonomy, University of Florida administrators have tried to put those issues in the past as they search for the school’s next president.

But a recent survey suggests many faculty members aren’t as ready to move on. It offers a grim picture of faculty morale, with many members indicating they would leave if they could and a majority expressing little confidence in the university’s leadership.

The 32-question survey was sent to 2,000 faculty in the bargaining unit and yielded 623 responses. It asked faculty across each college to rank how strongly they agree, disagree or were neutral about statements.

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Nearly half still had concerns about their academic freedom.

More than 67% said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that they could “openly express a dissenting opinion about the administration’s policies without fear of reprisal.”

Sixty-five percent expressed concerns that administrators were not held accountable. Almost three-quarters of the respondents (74%) expressed concerns over whether the UF board of trustees “ensures that the university is free from undue political influence.”

About 70% expressed a lack of confidence that the board will select a new president who “prioritizes academic, scholarly and faculty interests.”

And if personal factors weren’t keeping them at the university, more than 63% said they somewhat or strongly agreed that they would leave if “offered a comparable job elsewhere.”

Meera Sitharam, vice president of the United Faculty of Florida union chapter at UF, said she was surprised by the results, particularly from departments like the College of Engineering, which she said are typically unaffected by political goings-on.

This year, 71% of the engineering faculty expressed concerns over the trustees keeping the university free from undue political influence.

“I was quite taken aback,” said Sitharam, who has led the survey since 2013.

She said morale was low in 2013 and 2014 after years of budget cuts, but that it picked up during the honeymoon period after Kent Fuchs became UF’s president in 2015. Things appeared to be improving, so the union took a break from doing the climate survey in 2016.

But by 2019, Sitharam said, tensions began rising. And after concerns rose over the university’s response to the pandemic, the union decided to circulate the survey again.

In the latest one, faculty also expressed disapproval about the way the COVID-19 outbreak was handled. In addition, they showed low approval rates in some colleges for the university’s provost and for Fuchs, who announced earlier this year that he would be stepping down.

Amanda Phalin, the new faculty senate president and a board of trustees member, said that while she understands her colleagues’ concerns, she feels the tides are turning. She said she feels confident about the board’s ability to find a skilled successor to Fuchs.

While the presidential search process is no longer open due to new state laws, UF’s search committee has conducted listening sessions and stated that they will seek someone with academic qualifications.

“I think we’re at a point in time to make some real, positive forward leaps,” Phalin said.

Cynthia Roldan, a spokesperson for the university, said the board was not aware of the faculty survey’s origins and could not comment on specifics.

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“Generally speaking, however, the university has repeatedly expressed its support for the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of our faculty,” she said. “Additionally, we routinely engage faculty directly when it comes to crafting policies that are consistent with those of other public universities in the state of Florida.”

Sitharam said the discontent stemmed from a “machinelike” expectation that faculty bring in research funding and teach classes without meaningful shared governance or involvement.

“It’s tempting to say faculty just have a disconnect — they don’t understand what real life is, they complain too much,” she said.

But their “overwhelming worry about political influence and lack of confidence in the board” raises questions, Sitharam said, comparing it to a corporate setting.

“If employees have that much of a lack of confidence about the next CEO,” she said, “how would the investor community react?”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.