Allegations of Board Overreach

Why did the University of Florida suddenly fire its honors program director?

August 16, 2022
Mark Law, a middle-aged white man with gray hair and glasses.
Mark Law
(University of Florida)

The director of the University of Florida’s honors program, who has been in the role eight years, says he was fired for no apparent reason with two years left on his current, five-year contract. Mark Law, the director, also says he was told that the university’s Board of Trustees insisted on his ouster, against the will of the university’s president and provost.

“Honors Director is a title I can no longer claim,” Law said in an email to colleagues over the weekend, alerting them that his last day would be Monday. “The Board of Trustees of UF fired me effective August 15. I learned about this only about a month ago. I have never had a negative performance evaluation and have been led to believe I was doing a good job by the administrators I work for. I haven’t been provided a reason for their action. I’m bitterly disappointed by the board’s decision.”

Administrative appointments, unlike tenured faculty positions, can generally be revoked at any time without cause. But abrupt terminations can prove disruptive for remaining faculty and staff members and students, so (for this reason and others) they’re rare. Rarer still are accounts of governing boards reaching down into administrative ranks to terminate program-level appointees, especially against the will of the president and provost.

The news about Law, coupled with ongoing concerns about academic freedom and political interference at UF, has therefore troubled some on campus.

Law said in an interview Monday that he learned of his termination in mid-July, during a coffee meeting with an administrator who told him that the board had insisted on it, over the objections of the President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joseph Glover. (That administrator did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.)

Late Monday, a spokesperson emailed the following statement from UF: "The Honors Program at the University of Florida is a highly competitive and prestigious program that attracts some of the best and brightest student scholars from around the world. We can confirm that Dr. Mark Law is no longer the UF Honors Program director. Effective today, the program will be led by Interim Director Dr. Melissa L. Johnson, who has served the program for more than 15 years and is responsible for its day-to-day operations, which include Honors Advising, honors courses, and the honors student activities and organizations. The UF Honors Program will continue to thrive and provide an excellent experience for its students across disciplines. The university will not comment further on personnel matters."

Asked if he had any idea why the board would want to fire him, Law said he could only “speculate, and I’m not going to do that with a reporter.” Asked about his interactions with the board, Law said the most recent was during a June board retreat, when he gave what he thought was a relatively unremarkable presentation about the honors program. Law said he was told that the board made the decision to fire him at the retreat (which is not a formal meeting and for which there are no formal minutes or notes).

Asked if board members had any questions about his presentation, Law said some asked about the design of an honors program dormitory that is currently being built. Those questions centered on the bathroom design, he said, but were architectural in nature and did not concern topics that have proved controversial elsewhere, namely gender designation. (UF has asked faculty members not to run afoul of new Florida laws limiting discussions of race and gender and, separately, controversies surrounding gender-neutral bathrooms flare up from time to time across academe. For the record, Law said the honors program dorm bathrooms are to be gender-neutral, with individual stalls with sinks, toilets and showers.)

Law also recalled some comments about requirements for the honors program and said that he reiterated to the board his support of current holistic admissions practices, including having applicants write two personal essays.

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While Law says he remains baffled by the board’s action, he noted that following the retreat, the university changed the honors program application requirements to include only one essay, not two, without the program’s approval.

“We did not sign off in honors,” Law said. “This was dictated to us by the vice president of enrollment management.”

The university did not respond to a question about this change in policy Monday, or provide any details about how Law was fired, or why, when asked.

Law remains a distinguished professor of engineering at UF. He said that while having a tenured faculty appointment offers some security after being fired from his longtime role, he’ll miss the job at which he was always told he was doing well, and he will miss students most of all.

“We get some really amazing students at UF, and the cream of the crop into the honors program, and it’s just been so much fun to help create opportunities and to see them grow and, you know, become adults. Working with young people is amazing.”

Colleges and universities in Florida are under pressure to comply with a host of new laws affecting the curriculum and faculty work, including the new anti–critical race theory law enforced by a separate financial penalty law, a law allowing students to film professors without permission in order to report them for alleged free speech violation, and a posttenure-review law. And UF, in particular, has been accused of limiting faculty speech on its campus, including by previously barring certain professors from serving as expert witnesses in legal cases that challenge state positions on key issues.

Paul Ortiz, professor of history at UF and president of its faculty union, said Monday that the news about Law was shocking but not surprising, given the political environment on campus and throughout the state.

“We’re under siege in Florida,” Ortiz said. “There’s constant threats to intellectual freedom and tenure and a whole raft of issues.” Of Law, in particular, he said, “I’m appalled. You know, the students love honors. I have a lot of students who have been enrolled in the program over the years and they love the honors program at UF. You know, it’s traditionally underfunded compared to our peers, but wow, they do an incredible job.”

Unfortunately, he continued, “what’s happened at UF and other universities is that what happens in the classroom just doesn’t seem to matter anymore to people who are running the show at the top. Because every evaluation that I’m aware of, every kind of objective evaluation I’ve heard of with the honors program, it’s gotten really high marks across the board. So this is really stunning.”

Dale Campbell, professor emeritus of higher education administration at UF, said it’s “unprecedented for the board to get involved [in this way]. It is deeply concerning and has a chilling effect on academic freedom.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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