University Of Florida Faces Another Political Flap Over Hiring Of DeSantis Appointee

The University of Florida (UF) finds itself again facing political controversy. This time the hubbub concerns the process used to hire Dr. Joseph Ladapo into a tenured faculty position in the UF College of Medicine last fall.

Only days after what’s now being described as a rushed process that skirted, if not violated, standard UF hiring procedures, Ladapo was tabbed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to be the state’s surgeon general and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, a choice that’s proven increasingly controversial in light of Ladapo’s publicly stated skepticism concerning various Covid-19 precautions and the effectiveness of vaccines, particularly for children.

A report submitted by an hoc UF Faculty Senate committee this week said the process used to hire Ladapo was marked by “numerous irregularities,” and that it “appeared to violate the spirit, and in review the exact letter, of UF hiring regulations and procedures , particularly in the vital role faculty play in evaluating the qualifications of their peers.”

Among the irregularities cited by the seven-person committee:

  1. Despite the fact that a search committee was appointed, members of that committee said “that they had not been consulted on this hire, had no knowledge that this position was being filled, and had not participated in any way in this candidate’s application.” One of the members of the search committee had not even been employed by the College of Medicine for about two years before the hiring process. Further, when the search committee was asked for minutes of its meeting/deliberations, none was provided.
  2. UF hiring regulations require that the “eligible faculty members of the department or unit shall review the package and may meet to discuss the nomination. A secret ballot of the eligible faculty of the department or unit shall be taken no earlier than one day following the meeting.” In Ladapo’s case, the faculty took a vote by secret ballot, but they didn’t hold a meeting to discuss the candidate’s qualifications, and the ballot didn’t close until 5:00 pm on Friday, September 17, 2021. Dr. Ladapo’s official offer letter was dated the day prior, Thursday, September 16, 2021.
  3. Dr. Ladapo’s offer stated that: “The University of Florida President and Provost have approved a request that you be awarded tenure at the time of your appointment.” But as the committee observed, the President’s and Provost’s recommendations of Dr. Ladapo for tenure could not have been made with the appropriate faculty input and tenure vote because that vote had not yet been taken. “To the extent unit faculty were consulted in this decision, their participation seems to have been pro forma at best, and non-existent at worst.”
  4. The original offer letter to Dr. Ladapo stated his full-time, twelve-month faculty position would begin on October 1, 2021, but he struck out that date and changed it to September 20, 2021.
  5. As further evidence of the haste with which the process unfolded, the committee noted this chronology: Ladapo applied for the position on 9/13/2021. Just one day later, an offer letter was requested by the Senior VP for Health Affairs from the Dean of the College of Medicine. A faculty vote was requested the following day (Wednesday, 9/15/2021). The offer letter was signed by UF officials on Thursday, 9/16/2021 and was sent to Dr. Ladapo on 9/17,/2021, the same day the faculty vote was to close at 5:00 pm The 10/1/ 2021 start date in that letter was changed by Ladapo himself to 9/20/2021, just one day before DeSantis appointed him surgeon general.
  6. Concerned also was expressed about Ladapo’s compensation, which, on top of his $262,000 faculty salary, included an administrative supplement of $75,000 for leading a “Special Projects group on developing policies and interventions to reduce healthcare disparities for UF Health.” Faculty believed that job should have been “advertised and filled by someone with better credentials in this area or someone who would be more attentive to these duties.”

UF officials defended the process, citing Lapado’s strong academic credentials and claiming that the process was “consistent” with the way other College of Medicine appointments had been handled. They maintained that expedited appointments were often necessary for critical positions and therefore differed in some respects from what occurs in other departments.

But many College of Medicine faculty weren’t buying it. Numerous faculty stated that they were upset about the covert nature of the process and expressed regret that they were given insufficient time and information to properly evaluate Ladapo.

According to the committee report, ”Several members asked to rescind their vote about tenure but were told that was not possible. There was also a request to hold a zoom meeting to discuss possible next steps, but faculty were asked not to convene the meeting”.

In one email, a faculty member in the College of Medicine said, “Dr. Ladapo’s hiring is an embarrassment to me and should be to UF. The fact that he is one of my colleagues is offensive to me given what I have experienced. I personally believe that he has not demonstrated good sound judgment to even receive a Florida state medical license. I have heard from some that the college of medicine and department of medicine faculty were not included at all in the decision process to hire him. I think this is wrong since faculty are heavily involved in hiring and promotion process.”

Faculty suspicions may have been provoked by the fact that the process began when Dr. Ladapo’s CV was sent to medical school officials by UF Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini, a confidant and major donor to DeSantis. For example, one faculty email said, “I have been dismayed by the hiring of Dr. Ladapo and all that has come out about both his views on public health issues, and at what appears to be completely inappropriate political influence and bad judgment to rush his hiring process.”

And from another: “Geez, other than the obvious kowtowing to political influences and lack of any oversight of conflicts of interest there nothing to see here. Please name one other doctor, professor of administrator hired in a weeks’ time or less? This hire has political dirt all over it, UF needs to rethink policies.”

The Ladapo controversy comes just a few months after the University of Florida had attracted national attention when it tried to use its conflict of interest policy to prevent faculty from offering expert testimony in a voting rights lawsuit.

In that case, facing national scrutiny, the university ultimately changed its posture, and a federal judge also granted the faculty members’ request for a temporary injunction, ordering that the university “must take no steps to enforce its conflict-of-interests policy with respect to faculty and staff requests to engage as expert witnesses or provide legal consulting in litigation involving the State of Florida until otherwise ordered.”

As part of the fallout from that case, Dr. W. Kent Fuchs indicated he would retire as the university’s president at the end of this academic year and return to the UF faculty. Although Fuchs said his decision had been in the works for months, many observers believed the expert testimony flap was one of several political controversies that he had grown weary of confronting in recent years.

Now comes the legitimate concerns about the Ladapo appointment, and with them a renewed perception that political pressures are allowed to play too much of a role in how the University of Florida conducts its academic business. The outside influence may not take the form of overt, strong-arm tactics. A little push here, just a bit of a shove there, might be all that it takes.

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