U Florida president’s appointment raises important questions

Academics are concerned that the recent appointment of Republican Senator Ben Sasse as president of the University of Florida (UF) represents efforts by political leaders of the state to install politicians with little to no higher education experience and who are there to enact the governor’s will.

By a vote of 67-15, on 27 October, the University of Florida’s faculty senate voted “No Confidence” in Senator Ben Sasse, whom, a few days later, the university’s board of trustees officially chose as the sole candidate to be presented to state board of governors which approved Sasse’s appointment on 9 November.

Though only symbolic, the no confidence vote was an accurate measure of the temperature on the campus of Florida’s flagship state university. A few weeks earlier, Sasse’s appearance at an open forum drew some 300 student protesters who charged him with being both racist and homophobic and, at times, drowned out his answers with chants such as “Hey hey, ho ho. Ben Sasse has got to go.”

Among the concerns of students and faculty are Sasse’s views on gay marriage. In a press release on 26 June 2015, which remains on his senatorial website, Sasse denounced the US Supreme Court ruling that legalised gay marriage.

“Today’s rule is a disappointment to Nebraskans who understand that marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mom and dad. The Supreme Court once again overstepped its Constitutional role by acting as a super-legislature and imposing its own definition of marriage on the American people.”

When asked about this, according to campus newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator, Sasse said that in 2015 he was speaking as a senator from Nebraska but that as UF president, he was committed to ensuring it would be a “place of respect and inclusion for all Gators”.

According to Professor Meera Sitharam, who teaches computer and information science at UF and is the vice-president of the UF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), many in the audience thought that Sasse’s answer – that the decision legalising gay marriage was “the law of the land” – displayed a tin ear.

These words echo the phrase “it’s settled law” and other similar phrases used by four of the justices Republican presidents appointed to the Supreme Court when asked about how they would rule on a case that challenged the federal right to access abortion services.

Despite these assertions in their confirmation hearings, last June each of these justices voted with the majority to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that legalised abortion across the United States.

“He dodged the question. In fact, the whole Q&A session was an orchestrated dog and pony show. There were questions from the faculty, but they were asked for us. And, once he responded, there were no follow ups,” said Sitharam.

Ethan Eibe, a reporter with The Independent Florida Alligator and a sophomore at UF, told CNN that many of the students who protested against Sasse were concerned that “when it comes to a community as diverse as UF, students overall don’t feel he is a good fit”. Further, they believe: “It’s a bad look on the board of trustees that names him the sole finalist of 700 candidates.”

Sasse’s track record

According to the UFF, the problems with Sasse’s appointment go far beyond how it makes the board of trustees look.
First, there are important discrepancies between how Sasse and UF portrayed his five-year tenure (2009-14) as president of Midland University (MU) and information obtained by the union. According to Sasse, while president of MU, a small Lutheran liberal arts college, he stabilised finances and in his last year the institution had its largest freshman intake in its history.

“Sasse was president of a much smaller college, something like 1,600 students compared to UF’s 50,000,” said Andrew Gothard, who teaches English at Florida Atlantic University and is president of the United Faculty of Florida. “More importantly, the information we’ve seen does not paint him as a benevolent figure who saved the institution [MU].

“Rather, he is someone who enacted policies that are very similar to what Governor Ron DeSantis wants to see in place at all of our universities and colleges in Florida,” said Gothard, referring to both tenure and attacks on academic freedom by the DeSantis government.

While on campus, Sasse tried to draw a distinction between his decision to eliminate tenure at MU and UF: “There’s obviously a big difference between a large, complex research institution and a small teaching centric institution. Tenure is an important tool in a large research university.”

For Sasse’s critics, this explanation was hardly a ringing endorsement of tenure and its importance to the maintenance of academic freedom, especially since Sasse admitted that he did not fully understand Florida’s ‘Stop Woke Act’, a law that bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and is meant, according to DeSantis, to prevent the indoctrination of students in Florida’s public colleges and universities.

Other attacks on academic freedom by the DeSantis government include requiring faculty and students to be surveyed on their political beliefs, and restricted tenure (by giving the state-wide board of governors the power to grant and adjudge tenure on a five-year review cycle).

“Academic freedom is obviously essential to our research mission, and academic freedom is essential to what happens in the dynamic in the classroom,” said Sasse before adding: “My understanding is [that] some people are worried about indoctrination in the classroom. Good teaching isn’t indoctrination.” Rather, the senator averred, academic freedom is healthy debate.

Gothard pushed back strongly against Sasse’s implication that UF professors are indoctrinating their students.

“We don’t see him attempt to combat attacks on tenure and academic freedom or restrictions on free speech on campus and the other sort of policies we are dealing with from the state government. We expect that he will more or less toe the line of the political masters who appointed him.

“The fact [that] he replaced tenured professors with adjunct professors when he was president of Midland University indicates that he is aligned with the government’s plans and that he doesn’t understand the importance of the protection tenure provides.”

‘Lack of academic rigour’

Nor, said Sitharam, were the faculty impressed by Sasse’s CV, noting his lack of qualifications and the absence of a rigorous academic background compared with previous presidents. “He got a degree from Yale and a PhD from Harvard, but that really isn’t a CV. In fact, we couldn’t even see his CV.”

Sasse’s talk at the Town Hall meeting, Sitharam told University World News, lacked academic or intellectual rigour. His basic axiom was that automation and data processing will cause disruptive changes, points that were hardly new.

In Sitharam’s view, Sasse’s talk drew heavily on sources from the world of business and was not primarily concerned, as it should have been, with universities and their mission.

“They [the sources] are not from the academic world, which is concerned with the development of young people and their communities. His worldview made me feel like we’re all going to be caught up in this kind of whirlwind and swirl where we have no control or agency.”

Even his emphasis on lifelong learning discomforted Sitharam. “He didn’t talk about lifelong learning because people want to be lifelong learners. Rather, it was that they have no choice because the world is going to be changing so much that we have to navigate one thing: one job to another. I keep questioning why we have to keep adjusting to whatever corporate work wants.”

A closed search process

The mechanics of Sasse’s appointment are, Sasse’s critics argue, inimical to shared governance. Nine years ago, because of Florida’s strong sunshine laws, when UF searched for a replacement for Dr Bernie Machen, the names of the candidates were public. This allowed the stakeholders – students, faculty and staff – to see the range of candidates and have some confidence that the best names went forward to the board.

The search to replace Kent Fuchs unfolded in a very different legal environment. Ostensibly designed to ensure that the best people could either apply to be presidents of Florida’s universities or, as was the case at UF, firms like SP&A Executive Search could headhunt the best talent, Senate Bill 520, passed last March, prevents stakeholders such as professors or their union from knowing anything but the age, race and gender of the final applicants.

According to Sitharam, this new system was sold by state officials who said: “‘Good people won’t apply if the search is open’. Which is very strange to me. There’s no proof of this, although they [the administration] keep repeating it. So, the search was a very weird thing. Information had to be made public 21 days before the end of the search. All of this had to be on the public record. So, I believe there is a public record out there.”

From 700 applicants, the university said, 12 were finalists. However, instead of posting a list of these final candidates, including sitting presidents from major universities, on the UF’s website it was announced that since Sasse was the lone final candidate for the job, the university did not have to provide any further information about the other candidates.

As Gothard summarises UF’s logic: “We put forward only Ben Sasse. So that’s our final list. There is no final group.”

The UFF demurred. “What we’re saying is ‘no’. Under Florida law there has to be a final group. And you don’t get to trump Florida law just by changing how you do your search process. So, based on your own admission, you have a final group of 12. We want the personal identifying information of those individuals. And, if you don’t produce it, we are going to seek to have you compelled to do so in court,” said Gothard.

When I asked Gothard why the general public should think that the debate about who is president of UF is something other than a campus game of ‘inside baseball’, he paused for a moment and then said that whether the faculty agreed with a president’s policies or not, as the body responsible for the academic life of the university, they have a responsibility to ensure that the president was qualified in a basic sense for the higher education position he or she would fill.

Referring to Sasse’s thin university administrator CV, he said: “If we’re talking about a range of candidates who all have significant higher education experience, who all understand what it’s like to be in a classroom, who have worked at various levels inside a higher education institution, those are the kind of people who need to be in college and university president positions.

“What we are seeing here, instead, is an effort by the political leaders of the state of Florida to install politicians who have little to no higher education experience, who are there to enact the will of the governor.

“At this point, that will be to limit the constitutional rights of the higher education community, to attack academic freedom, tenure and other protections against undue political influence, and to turn our higher education system into a political pawn for the Republican Party.”

What does he know?

What, then, does Sasse’s appointment mean to professors like Paul Ortiz, who teaches in UF’s department of history and directs the university’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program?

“The selection,” he told me, “demonstrates a lack of knowledge about what’s happening in the classroom, a lack of knowledge of what’s happening in the labs or in fieldwork. I’m going to take him at his word that he’s taken a vow of political celibacy, but he needs to find out what goes on in a research university.

“He is going to have to learn what pressures our students are under: how do you get [understand] the University of Florida as an undergrad or grad student? How do you finish and make it into the job market?

“He’s never advised a graduate student, as far as I can tell. He’s called himself an ‘occasional professor’. There’s no such thing, by the way.

“We kept asking questions about what Ben Sasse knows about what makes a modern research university work. And the response we kept getting back was, ‘well, he doesn’t really know. But he’s really charming and he has a great vision’,” said Ortiz.

Next week: The last in our series on the crisis in governance in North American colleges and universities: Who will argue for truth in a top-down governance model? The case of the University of Alberta, Canada.