LSU and other SEC schools have become battlegrounds between university faculties, administrations and state governments.
Professors across the region have raised alarms about actions from upper administrations or state governments that threaten faculty free speech and autonomy.
In May 2021, over 600 members of the LSU Faculty Council, which includes all LSU faculty members, met and passed a resolution urging the university to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The Council, which had not met since 2005, voted nearly 90% in favor of the resolution.
LSU declined the Faculty Council’s request, choosing to wait until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted final approval of the Pfizer vaccine in August.
Faculty members then pleaded with the LSU Board of Supervisors to allow professors to teach remotely as COVID-19 cases soared in the fall, but their complaints were largely ignored as most courses returned to the classroom.
A month later, the Board proposed a motion to abolish one of the faculty’s two governing bodies—the Faculty Council or Faculty Senate—to be chosen by the faculty. The Faculty Council, which does not meet regularly, was most likely to get axed.
Some faculty members considered the move an attempt to silence faculty after months of going head to head with upper administration.
The motion was eventually set aside, however. LSU mass communication professor Bob Mann made public comments condemning the Board’s actions.
"This will cause national embarrassment for a university whose reputation is already at a low because of the way this Board responded to last year’s Title IX scandal,” Mann said. “If you vote to abolish the Faculty Council, you will not silence the faculty."
Despite the motion’s failure, tensions remain high between the faculty and administration. At the Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 28, several faculty members, including Mann, introduced a resolution calling for Faculty Senate President Mandi Lopez, Vice President Joan King and past President Kenneth McMillan, to resign. Emails circulated at the meeting showing that the three knew about the Board’s plans to abolish one of the faculty governing bodies but did not alert the rest of the faculty.
Mann said the reason he and other faculty members are fighting back against Faculty Senate leadership is because “we don't believe that the faculty is really well positioned to defend itself right now,” he said. Mann added that he’s concerned that the Board’s actions have had a chilling effect on younger, untenured faculty members.
“They're not confident that they have academic freedom,” he said. “The Faculty Senate, it's not defending us. Faculty senate leadership isn't defending us. The Board's not defending us, even Bill Tate was fine with that resolution,” Mann said.
In October, the University System of Georgia, which oversees 26 colleges and universities in the state, including the University of Georgia, approved controversial changes to the tenure system, which some professors described as the “death of tenure.”
The new tenure policy eliminates a peer review process that must be followed before dismissing a tenured faculty member, instead allowing faculty to be dismissed if they fail two consecutive annual reviews.
Matthew Boedy, president of the American Association of University Professors' Georgia conference, said the new policy will make it “tenure in name only,” and negatively affect recruiting talent to the university.
“You lose great judgment, you lose great deciders, and you lose people that could help other professors get better, right, you lose the best teachers and the best researchers,” Boedy said.
The situation in Georgia was also brought up by several professors at the LSU Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 28, who feared that similar changes could be coming to the LSU system.
Daniel Tirone, a political science professor at LSU, said that these situations have a “tendency to diffuse.”
“I can see, particularly depending upon future orientations of Louisiana politics, that at some point in time, someone may suggest to the Louisiana Board of Regents that it might be time to review tenure and maybe implement some of these changes as they were implemented in Georgia,” Tirone said.
In November 2021, three University of Florida professors filed a lawsuit against the university claiming the university was violating their First Amendment rights.
UF denied professors Daniel Smith, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald’s request to act as expert witnesses in a voting rights case on the grounds that doing so was “adverse to UF’s interests.” The lawsuit in question is against Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ administration.
While UF has reversed its original decision and is creating a task force made up of professors that will review the process of making requests to the university’s conflict of interest office, the trio of professors is continuing with its lawsuit against the university.
Brian Cahill, a psychology professor at UF and a representative of the university’s union, said that he was concerned about the political nature of the situation. Cahill also acts as an expert witness, usually in criminal cases.
“The ability of the state or a political ideology to come in and say, ‘well, because I don't like what you're saying, You can't do that,’ that is absurd,” he said.
As the three professors involved in the voting rights suit grabbed the nation’s attention, more UF professors came forward alleging that they had similarly been denied permission to participate in legal cases that were against the state’s interests.
Last year, four UF law professors were denied permission to participate in a case challenging a new felons voting law. In August 2021, a UF medical school professor was denied permission to participate in a case challenging the state’s ban on mask mandates.
Kenneth Nunn, one of the law professors, said he was denied permission to sign an amicus or “friend of the court” brief. The case dealt with Florida amendment four, which gave formerly disenfranchised persons who were convicted of felonies the opportunity to vote. The amendment passed in referendum but was challenged by the state.
Nunn said that in this situation, the court is seeking experts who have an opinion about the law, the facts or some aspect of the case that the judges of the court think will be useful to the court to consider. He was ultimately allowed to file the brief as long as he did not indicate he had any affiliation with the University of Florida.
Nunn said situations like this pose serious threats to academic speech.
“One of the things that we should have the ability to do is share knowledge with the world,” Nunn said. “That’s why we do the research, that’s why we study as in a way that we do so we can develop knowledge and information and then hopefully share that with people who are a broader audience than just the people who happen to be in our class on a given day.”
Cahill pointed out that faculty members at the law school and the medical school at UF are not union members. “The fact that our academic freedom is being threatened, having a union to fight for us is crucially important,” he said.