Mori Hosseini, UF board chairman, was pandemic link to DeSantis

The chairman of the University of Florida board of trustees served as a liaison with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office when administrators considered temporarily moving some college classes online due to the pandemic, according to text messages.

Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, who was elected president in 2018, is already coming under scrutiny over questions about his role in politically-colored decisions affecting the school.

The recently leaked texts showed the president communicating with the president of the university, Kent Fuchs, on the evening of August 13 – as the Delta variant swept across the United States. They were discussing reports surfacing that at least some main campus colleges were preparing to move all of their classes online during the first three weeks of the fall semester, which ends this week.

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Fuchs, who has previously said in interviews that he does not have the authority to challenge the decisions of the DeSantis administration, sent Hosseini a draft email he was preparing for faculty announcing that he did not there would be no switch to online courses. “Could you let me know if you have any changes,” Fuchs asked.

“The governor’s office has this,” wrote Hosseini, a wealthy developer who has served as DeSantis adviser and a Republican loyalist. He attached an excerpt from an internal UF post discussing the possibility of classes moving online for some colleges, including liberal arts, agriculture, engineering and business.

DeSantis, who made resistance to online courses and mask and vaccine warrants part of his political ideology, was pushing hard at the time to keep public schools and businesses in Florida open. The state’s flagship online university courses, even temporarily, would have been inconsistent.

A few days before the text exchange, DeSantis had issued an executive order banning mask warrants in elementary and secondary schools. The courts subsequently upheld the legality of the order.

Fuchs said he emailed the students the next day: “No course will go, even temporarily, online,” Fuchs wrote.

Hosseini replied, “Please send me a copy so that I can forward it. ”

“I just emailed it,” Fuchs said.

The texts – released in response to a request under Florida’s Public Records Act – provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at how senior university officials were reacting to the pressure of discussions about how the school would work to ensure the safety of students and others on campus. during the pandemic.

Hosseini did not respond to phone messages and emails.

Communication with the chairman of the board is not uncommon

UF spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said it was common for the president to meet with the chairman of the board.

“From time to time, the chairman of the board may choose to brief state officials on academic developments,” she said in a statement. She added that UF was following the advice of the Florida State University system regarding the fall’s return to pre-pandemic operations.

Until the start of the semester, the university – which has reported more positive cases since March 2020 than any other school in the United States – required campus students to wear masks inside classrooms and be tested every week. Students were subsequently encouraged but not required to wear masks in classrooms. The tests were mandatory for students taking in-person classes during the spring semester, but in the fall they were only to be tested if they suspected they had come into contact with an infected person. The school’s top epidemiologist, Dr Michael Lauzardo, openly, but unsuccessfully, called for mandatory vaccines for students and teachers.

In the weeks following the exchange of texts, the number of positive COVID-19 cases increased on the Florida campus as classes resumed on August 23. They peaked on August 30 with nearly 700 students and others infected during the period, and then declined steadily.

No students, professors or staff have died during this time, but the faculty’s Senate last month passed an unusual measure – despite Fuchs’ objections – expressing no confidence in the administration’s management of the pandemic on campus. Fuchs had warned that the vote could have ramifications from the state capital.

After the text exchange, Fuchs emailed the faculty at 9:10 p.m. He acknowledged that there had been discussions about moving some courses online during the first three weeks of the semester, but added: any other university in the state university system.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs comments on the announcement that UF will reach the top 5 universities in the country, during a ceremony at Alumni Hall on the UF campus in Gainesville, in Florida on September 13, 2021.

Fuchs’ email did not state whether the plan had been blocked by the governor’s office, the board of governors that oversees all Florida universities, UF’s own administrators, or the university administrators themselves – or any combination.

The next day, as promised, an official email to students announced the same decision, just as ambiguously: “There were discussions about moving some courses online for the first three weeks of the semester, and there was notifications to this effect for some After further consideration, the decision was taken not to do so. “

American Association of University Administrators president Dan L. King said it would not be unusual for appointed political members of the board to communicate with the governor about the university’s operations.

“It is not unreasonable to expect that a board of trustees can act as an intermediary in these circumstances,” said King, a former university administrator. “It’s not a formal part of a role, but there are a number of places where more or less that kind of role would come into play, in large part because of the role of politics playing in the role. role in which they are. “

There was no evidence that DeSantis ordered the university not to move the courses online. Governor’s spokeswoman Christina Pushaw did not dispute that Hosseini communicated messages between the university and the governor’s office, but said DeSantis was not involved in shaping the policies of the UF. She also noted that reporters had asked earlier in the afternoon whether the governor’s office was aware of information circulating on campus regarding certain classes being moved online.

“Governor DeSantis has been very clear in his stance against COVID warrants and lockdowns,” she wrote in an email. He has also said regularly in public remarks that students should have access to education and opportunities in person. The governor is not involved in the internal affairs of the UF and he has confidence in the leadership of the UF. ‘university.”

Hosseini’s close contact with DeSantis

The texts offered further evidence of Hosseini’s close relationship with DeSantis amid sensitivities regarding political influence over university operations. Former Governor Rick Scott appointed Hosseini to the board in 2016, and DeSantis reappointed earlier this year.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is competing for the Democratic nomination against DeSantis next year, asked earlier this month that Hosseini be fired.

“Under his leadership, UF has grown from a world-class educational institution to a school that censors its teachers – and the truth – to advance the sweeping political agenda of the governor and his board appointees of UF, “Fried said in a statement.

The USA Today Network reported in October that Hosseini sent the resume of current Florida surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, to the president of UF Health, which sped up Ladapo’s hiring process at the university. Ladapo, whose opinions on COVID-19 policies on masks and vaccines have made him divisive, earns $ 437,000 as a general surgeon and associate professor of UF.

Earlier this month, at a board meeting, Hosseini said he was not involved in recent controversial UF decisions to prevent professors from testifying as paid expert witnesses in an action. suing over voting rights against DeSantis, citing what he said was a conflict of interest. The school overturned its decision under pressure.

“Neither I, any other member of this council, the governor, nor any legislator has had any influence on specific decisions on outside activities and conflicts of interest. Point,” Hosseini said.

The university charged around $ 13 to produce the newly disclosed texts. He didn’t turn over hundreds of pages of other files for which he charged $ 351 in mid-October to produce. Those recordings covered behind-the-scenes emails and other communications about the sudden decision to demand all in-person classes and who might have been involved.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service from the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. The reporter can be contacted at [email protected]

Harry D. Gonzalez