Dr. W. Kent Fuchs will retire as University of Florida president at the end of the 2021-22 academic year and intends to return to teaching as part of the UF faculty, he announced on Tuesday in a video posted to YouTube.
Fuchs, who came to Florida to replace Bernie Machen in 2015, had previously served as provost and dean of engineering at Cornell, and would likely join Florida’s faculty as part of its College of Engineering.
Florida’s release suggests Fuchs will serve as president through at least the Fall 2022 term, with the school targeting early 2023 for a selection of its next president.
Fuchs’s tenure was marked first and foremost by a concerted campaign to drive UF up the U.S. News and World Report rankings of American public schools, with a goal of reaching the top 10 in those rankings met in 2017 and a rise to the top five being celebrated with much fanfare in 2021.
But the university’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a ream of allegations that it has become malleable when pressured by the state government as led by Governor Ron DeSantis have dominated headlines about it in the months surrounding that announcement, curdling much of the good feeling about the school among students, faculty, and alumni.
Students and faculty have frequently leveled critiques about UF’s inability or unwillingness to properly protect them against COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic during the Spring 2020 term, and continue to do so as UF returns to in-person classes during the height of the omicron variant’s current surge.
A charitable reading would note that Fuchs and other Florida figures have explained the school’s stances on COVID-19 protocols — which amount to stressing the importance of but not mandating vaccination and mitigation measures like masking and social distancing for students or faculty — as examples of it doing all that it can despite a forbidding state government. But the school’s decision to block professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a number of voting rights cases being brought against Florida spawned an equally dire crisis this fall.
That decision was ultimately reversed, with Fuchs also accepting the recommendations of a hastily-formed task force in regards to conflict of interest policies that the school claimed were at the root of its original decision. Yet it has also provoked an investigation into UF’s policies from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the body that gives the university its accreditation, and that probe was set to include an on-campus visit at last reporting.
Much of this criticism about political pressure and top-level decision-making has run parallel to the tenure and growing influence of Mori Hosseini as chairman of the UF Board of Trustees. And Hosseini, a long-time Republican donor and close DeSantis ally who was reappointed as chair by DeSantis in February and whose role in the university’s approval of the controversial installation of Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Florida surgeon general — and, by extension, a UF professor — was scrutinized this fall, is one of just two living persons other than Fuchs whose name appears in UF’s release on Fuchs’s retirement and will clearly have a significant role in selecting his successor.
The other person mentioned by name? Former President Barack Obama, who appointed Fuchs to the National Science Board during his second term — and whose political views are probably far closer to Fuchs’s own than those of Hosseini or DeSantis.
But despite its rise in national rankings during his tenure, Fuchs being unable — or unwilling — to protect and prevent the University of Florida from being entangled by political machinations seems likely to lead any recounting of his legacy done in the near future.