No conservatives need apply?
Ben Sasse, the University of Florida, and the future of tax-supported universities
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The U.S. senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, was recently named the singular finalist to serve as the next president of the University of Florida. On one hand, the move might not seem so surprising. Just a few years ago, Florida State University years had a former Florida speaker of the house serving in the top role. In past decades, we have seen other politicians leading state universities. David Boren left the U.S. Senate back in 1994 to lead the University of Oklahoma, where he would preside successfully for the next 24 years. Mitch Daniels went from the governorship of Indiana to run Purdue with vision and excellence.
Sen. Sasse would seem to fill the bill. He obtained his undergraduate degree in government from Harvard and then earned his doctorate in history from Yale. While only 37, he was tapped to lead a small private university in Nebraska. His five years there were, by any account, a success. Sasse was credited with leading a major turnaround. From there he ran an outsider, grassroots campaign all the way to the U.S. Senate and then won re-election in 2020, despite having been an often-sharp critic of President Trump. His record, then, is one of an independent-minded, high achiever with serious academic credentials.
Sasse’s interest in the position at the University of Florida comes as little surprise to those who have observed him in the Senate. He has often seemed less interested in the work of moving legislation than he has been in analyzing the pathologies of American society and trying to nudge the contestants in domestic battles in a more constructive direction. Given the title and positive reception of his first major book, The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse appears to be a natural fit for major university leadership.
Florida is a red state (increasingly so) with a popular conservative governor (Ron DeSantis). Given those facts, it should be unsurprising to see someone like Sasse tapped to lead the state’s flagship public university. However, his selection as the only finalist has led to substantial resistance. Why? First, because he is a Republican who would invade academia—space the left likes to think it owns. Second, opposition comes because Sasse is pro-life and pro-traditional marriage. These last two are obvious heresies for most of America’s academic culture and have led to concerns that Sasse presents some kind of threat to women, gay persons, trans persons, and so forth. To use the language of the moment, he is “unsafe.”
The idea that Sasse’s leadership would somehow foster an unsafe or threatening atmosphere because of his traditional views is clearly part of the strategy that secular progressives have developed to delegitimize conservatives. In response, Sasse has highlighted his own perspective on higher education, which is that the purpose of higher learning is to initiate students into great debates rather than indoctrinate them. Nevertheless, one of his meetings on campus had to be cut short because of invasive protests. Tolerance and openness to discussion is supposed to be the calling card of the academic enterprise, but unfortunately that virtue has apparently proved non-renewable in the current climate. Another townhall had to be moved online.
The opposition to a Sasse presidency at UF raises real questions. Are the protesting students saying, in effect, that there is no conservative person—including one with degrees from the world’s finest institutions, relevant experience, and two terms in the U.S. Senate—who can serve as an acceptable leader of a public university (even a state university in a “red” state)?
Then came news that the UF faculty senate intends to hold a no-confidence vote on Sasse’s potential appointment. Two things should be said about that. First, a vote by the faculty senate is not necessarily representative of the faculty at large. A faculty senate tends to attract activists. But second, and more important, is the simple reality that it is inconceivable that the UF faculty senate would arrange a similar procedure to reject a similarly credentialed candidate from the political left.
If this is where things now stand, then what incentive do approximately half of Americans have to continue supporting a system that considers them and their views to be completely illegitimate and unacceptable? Should conservative (and/or Christian) Americans be willing to continue to subsidize such institutions with their taxes? Should they be willing to send their sons and daughters to such places? Higher education will not ultimately fare well if it presents itself as the privileged province of pedigreed secular leftists.
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