On Thursday, October 6, the University of Florida announced that Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse was the sole finalist chosen by the presidential search committee to be the next UF president.
UFF-UF is deeply concerned by this choice. We applaud the UF Student Government for its vote to condemn both the search process and its result. We urge UF Faculty Senators to support the vote of no confidence in the presidential search process at the Thursday, 27 October, special meeting of the Faculty Senate. Lastly, we call upon UF Faculty Senate Chair Amanda Phalin and Student Government President Lauren Lemasters, in their capacity as University of Florida Trustees, to speak out and vote against Senator Sasse’s confirmation as UF President.
Senator Sasse’s nomination for this role poses a number of significant problems. First and most obviously, Senator Sasse’s positions on a wide variety of public issues raise doubts about his ability to work productively with UF’s diverse community, advance a spirit of inclusiveness on campus, and protect academic freedom.
How, for instance, can LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff form trusting bonds with a person who has publicly deplored the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, which affirmed the right to a same-sex marriage? How can international students, faculty, and staff build trust with a person who has a long history of incendiary statements on China and Chinese people? How can the campus community trust Senator Sasse’s commitment to academic freedom when one of his most notable ‘accomplishments’ as President of Midland College was abolishing tenure and putting Midland on the path to having one of the most precarious academic labor forces in higher education?
Senator Sasse’s performance at the special, question-and-answer session of the UF Faculty Senate on Monday, October 10 did little to assuage these concerns. When asked about his previous positions on issues related to LGBTQ equality, Sen. Sasse blithely said the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide is “settled law.”
This statement flies in the face of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s argument in his recent concurrent opinion to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. In this concurrent opinion, Justice Thomas argued that the court should revisit not just abortion rights but the constitutional right to privacy, contraception access, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage. Regardless, the mere assertion that same-sex marriage is “settled law” is of no consequence. If the Supreme court were to suddenly unsettle this right (as it recently unsettled abortion right), would UF preserve same-sex partner benefits? Senator Sasse has not addressed this topic.
When asked about climate change, Senator Sasse offered a similarly unsatisfactory answer. He said he believes in the human role in climate change but is skeptical about the state’s capacity to address climate change. Does that statement mean he would also be skeptical about UF’s capacity, as a public institution, to make a difference?
Clearly, the UF campus community believes that our university has a vital role to play in this era-defining issue. In 2006, for instance, UF became one of the first universities to sign onto the President’s Climate Commitment. Later, in 2009, UF developed its first Climate Action Plan to make the university more sustainable, and the University is now on the verge of creating a second Climate Action Plan. Does Senator Sasse’s belief in the human role in climate change mean that he will commit to implementing this plan? He has not said.
Even assuming that Senator Sasse can separate his personal values from his role as UF president, as he promised to do at the October 10 Q&A sessions, his performance at those sessions did little to inspire confidence in his basic understanding of the issues facing UF.
Though the search committee assures us that Senator Sasse is a thoughtful and informed scholar who has a bold vision for both UF and higher education, most students, staff, and faculty heard platitudes that speak to inexperience and generalities lacking intellectual depth or rigor. He seemed hopelessly ignorant of the controversies surrounding HB7, academic freedom, and many other struggles that he will be forced to negotiate from his first day in office. He repeatedly said that he did not yet know how to answer these questions and that he would learn on the job. This kind of uninformed non-answer would be unacceptable coming from a job candidate for a faculty position; it should be beyond the pale coming from a potential university president.
Senator Sasse’s background and past experience also fly in the face of the clearly stated preferences of the UF community. At the many listening sessions that preceded the presidential search, UF students, faculty, and staff repeatedly expressed their desire for an independent presidential candidate; someone who opposes attempts by politicians to interfere in the teaching, research, and service missions of the university. (Click here for the text of the Faculty Senate’s “Resolution Affirming the Qualifications of the Thirteenth University of Florida President,” adopted May 5, 2022.) For the search committee to hear these repeated demands and nevertheless select a sitting United States Senator from the same political camp that is driving the politicization of higher education demonstrates either a profound misunderstanding or outright contempt for our community’s clearly-expressed views.
Supposing that Senator Ben Sasse is, in some abstract sense, the right person for this job – a hypothetical we very much doubt – he is nevertheless the wrong person for this moment. After years of politicians meddling in UF’s internal affairs – after the ‘Viewpoint Diversity’ law, ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ ‘Stop Woke,’ politically-motivated COVID policies, and more localized attempts to meddle with academic freedom – how can we trust a politician who hails from the same political camp that treats educators as enemies and educational institutions as hostile territory? How can Senator Sasse himself be asked to run this university when he starts the job with a trust deficit?
Lastly, if Senator Sasse becomes the next UF president, it will be much more difficult for UF to recruit and retain diverse faculty and students, as well as faculty and students who are adamant about such varied goals as sustainability and DEI. The losses UF will suffer will do significant harm to our institution and community. Not only will we lose potential students, faculty, and staff: individuals who will simply refuse to apply to UF under the assumption that they are not welcome here. We will also lose current UF employees who, with good reason, may decide they will be more welcome elsewhere.
Thus, UFF-UF urges UF Faculty Senators to support the vote of no confidence in the presidential search process at the upcoming Thursday, 27 October, special meeting of the Faculty Senate, which will take place in Reitz Union at 3pm. Finally, we ask UF Faculty Senate Chair Amanda Phalin and Student Government President Lauren Lemasters, in their capacity as University of Florida trustees, to speak out and vote against Senator Sasse’s confirmation as UF President. For Information, Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.