Conflicts Over Testimony
At about 2 PM on Friday November 5, The New York Times web site posted that the previous decision by the University of Florida to prohibit three professors from testifying for the plaintiffs in a law suit where the state of Florida is the defendant had been reversed. The three–Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon D. Wright Austin—can testify and be paid to do so, as is usually the case when academics testify in court as long as they do so on their own time. Why does this matter?
The question at hand is what happens when a state is a defendant and professors from that state’s university are testifying against the state? Are the professors caught in a conflict of interest between the people paying their salaries against whom they are testifying and their own freedom of speech?
The answer is not as simple as The New York Times makes it out to be. The paper clearly took the position, one supported by most of academia, that faculty are free to speak their minds on any subject and, if they testify on their own time, make a few bucks. But when faculty testify against their own employer, is that testimony reliable or tainted by retribution and past grievances?
This issue goes to the heart of what a state university is. Is it an independent place of scholarship and ideas like any other university or does it have a political identity due to its affiliation with a state that has an executive administration and a legislature led by politicians. In this particular case, the stance of Governor Ron DeSantis to outlaw mask mandates in schools (a pediatrician at UF was blocked from testifying against the mask ban) and to pass new voting bills that some fear suppress minority voting clashes with the stances taken by some of the faculty at UF.
The reason I bring this up now is what is going to happen at MD Anderson, a state institution, if President Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses of over 100 employees or that get Medicare money goes head-to-head with Governor Abbott’s opposition to said mandate. (That is if Biden’s mandate survives court challenges.) What is Dr. Pisters going to do?
I am sure that I am missing some nuance like the Biden mandate is legally trumped at a state university, but this could be a real issue and it might not be the only one. As Texas seems to be willing to challenge more and more federal decisions in court, it is only logical that experts within the state university system will be approached to testify against the interests of the state. Will they be allowed to? Who’s going to stop them? What is the UT policy on such issues? And is this an inherent conflict of interest?
This seems to be yet another example of conflict of interest that is plaguing the university systems of the United States. I only hope the MD Anderson faculty is engaged in the discussions surrounding these matters and that the Faculty Senate invokes shared governance in coming to conclusions should this arise.
Academic freedom surely has its limits. Hate speech cannot be tolerated anywhere. On the other hand, the rise of trigger warnings and liberal hypersensitivity to what students might hear in a classroom has gotten completely out of hand. The voters around the country seem to agree as what is taught in public schools has become a lightning rod for clashes between traditional curricula backed by parents and the introduction of race sensitive and gender sensitive language into those curricula by educators. At the ballot box last Tuesday, sanity seemed to prevail.
There are those on both the left and right that wish to curtail your freedom of speech, but speak up. Don’t let them. Everyone has a right to an opinion and a right to express it. It’s in the First Amendment. What gets taught in the classrooms of America and who can testify in open court is still being resolved.