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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The University of Florida takes a stance in opposition to Joe Ladapo

The University of Florida’s expectations for Joseph Ladapo were initially high, envisioning him as a promising addition. However, their optimism waned swiftly. In 2021, Ladapo, selected by Governor Ron DeSantis as Florida’s surgeon general, was ushered quickly into a tenured professorship at the university. His credentials, including a Harvard degree and prior roles as a research professor at New York University and UCLA, had impressed the faculty.

Anticipating Ladapo to bring substantial grant funding of at least $600,000 from his previous UCLA position, the professors were disappointed when this expectation wasn’t met. His job letter had outlined research in internal medicine, but Ladapo veered off course. Instead of fulfilling the expected role, he focused on editing science research manuscripts, delivering a guest lecture to graduate students, and authoring a memoir expressing skepticism about vaccines.

Despite Ladapo’s controversial actions as Florida’s surgeon general, his activities at UF largely escaped scrutiny. However, investigations involving over two dozen current and former faculty members, state lawmakers, former agency heads, and internal university documents revealed concerns. It was suggested that Ladapo bypassed a crucial review process when rapidly securing his tenured position, raising doubts about his suitability for the role.

This situation at UF underscores the politicization of the flagship public university by DeSantis and state Republicans, a trend also reflected in the appointment of former Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse as the university’s president. Several former Republican lawmakers, including ex-state Sen. Ray Rodrigues, now the university system’s chancellor, hold leadership roles in Florida higher education.

Ladapo’s controversial stances on COVID mandates and vaccines garnered national attention. He challenged established medical views, asserting potential dangers in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for healthy young men and cautioning against the latest Covid boosters for those under 65. Criticism also arose for his support of hydroxychloroquine, a treatment championed by former President Donald Trump but later found ineffective against Covid-19.

While other appointees underwent a thorough vetting process for tenured positions, Ladapo’s application was expedited in less than three weeks. Some faculty members noted that his claim of visiting the campus only twice in his first year displayed a lack of familiarity with the flagship medical school.

Despite attempts to seek Ladapo’s comments, he declined, and UF Health officials refused to address questions about his tenure. The DeSantis administration did not respond to requests for comment. State Senator Tina Polsky expressed frustration, noting Ladapo’s vague responses during confirmation hearings, further fueling concerns about his competence and priorities.

In the wake of the controversies surrounding Ladapo, Polsky characterized his issues at UF as unsurprising, portraying him as a figure more aligned with political agendas than public health concerns.

Two roles

Ladapo aligned perfectly with DeSantis as the state’s surgeon general, both gaining prominence for early pandemic criticism of safety measures, such as questioning booster effectiveness and the need for mandatory masking. Their shared endorsement of the Great Barrington Declaration, advocating a herd approach to Covid-19, added to their common ground.

While initially welcomed by UF staff, concerns arose swiftly. The speed at which Ladapo secured a tenured position, his failure to deliver promised grant funding, conflicts with colleagues, and questions about his time allocation between UF and his role as surgeon general led to faculty unease.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona flagged potential conflicts of interest, emphasizing the need to cut ties when in a political office. Ladapo’s dual role, earning $250,000 as surgeon general and $262,000 from UF, raised questions about the legality and ethics of simultaneously holding both positions under Florida law.

A UF Faculty Senate ad hoc committee, formed to scrutinize Ladapo’s hiring, found violations of university policies and raised concerns about academic transparency. An anonymous professor criticized the tenure process, accusing Ladapo of tarnishing the university’s academic reputation.

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Meera Sitharam, President of United Faculty of Florida-University of Florida, questioned the lack of investigation into Ladapo for scientific fraud, particularly in light of reports that he altered Covid study results. She expressed frustration at the apparent reluctance of medical and public health communities to scrutinize Ladapo, attributing it to the erosion of public trust in health institutions.

Funding issues

Significant concerns emerged, particularly related to financial commitments. Ladapo had initially assured UF that he would transfer grant funding from his previous position at UCLA to the Florida school, as per emails acquired from UF. This funding, awarded by the National Institutes of Health for a research project, never materialized, as indicated in the correspondence between Ladapo and school officials.

A search of the NIH database revealed that Ladapo remains listed as one of three researchers assigned to a smoking cessation study at UCLA, receiving over $600,000 in annual grant funding. Another NIH grant awarded to UCLA in 2020, totaling $600,000, identified Ladapo as the sole researcher and included his UF address.

In June 2022, Department of Medicine Vice Chair Mark Brantly informed Ladapo that a UF researcher assisting with the UCLA project had been reassigned due to the absence of grant funding. Despite Ladapo’s earlier commitment to transferring funds, Brantly suggested contacting the NIH program project person. Ladapo, in turn, sought intervention from Department of Medicine Chair Jamie B. Conti, who declined, citing her limited control over the matter and active engagement with NIH’s Office of Research Integrity.

A professor within the College of Medicine, who previously raised concerns about Ladapo’s vetting, expressed skepticism about Ladapo’s portrayal as a high-performing researcher, particularly given his salary. This skepticism was shared by others who questioned Ladapo’s productivity, especially amid the medical school’s projected $41.5 million shortfall. The professor emphasized anonymity due to a lack of authorization for public statements.

According to Gary Mans, assistant vice president of UF Health, the anticipated financial gap resulted from the College of Medicine’s rapid expansion and wage increases over recent years.

Ladapo’s role at the College of Medicine underwent significant changes by the spring of the current year. Initially hired to focus primarily on research within the UF Health internal medicine division, his recent quarterly effort report indicates a shift towards an undefined administrative role, raising concerns about his commitment to research.

Approximately a year into his tenure, Ladapo defended his position at UF during a meeting with the school’s vice president of health, David Nelson. Discussion topics included Ladapo’s desire to organize seminars on critically evaluating scientific evidence. In an email to Nelson and College of Medicine deans, Ladapo detailed his activities, including editing research manuscripts and working on his book, “Transcend Fear,” which explores his vaccine skepticism. While Ladapo fulfilled a teaching requirement, concerns were raised about the lack of progress in creating a seminar and course on the critical evaluation of scientific evidence, despite his expressed interest.

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