Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last March, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that exempted the names of applicants for the presidencies of Florida public universities and colleges from disclosure under public record laws. Last week, the search committee for the next president of the University of Florida named Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska the sole finalist for the position. In between that bill signing and now, at least as far as the general public is concerned, what happened is anyone’s guess.
This is a classic example of what I like to call “regressive action.” If “affirmative action” is a process intended to remedy the results of past discrimination (a process currently under attack by Republicans), then regressive action is a process intended to preserve the status quo, or even roll it back to an older model that privileges white guys like Sasse and DeSantis. In this context, it defiles the ideals of a public university as an agent of equity and as a common good, not only because of the secret and political nature of the appointment, but also because of Sasse’s specific history.
Republicans in Florida and around the country have been attacking the independence of institutions of public higher education for years. By claiming colleges and universities indoctrinate students in liberal ideology and silence conservatives (they don’t), politicians like DeSantis and wealthy conservative donors are trying to take over hiring, firing and course curriculum in ways that would allow them to indoctrinate students in conservative ideology and silence educators. The secretive selection of Sasse to lead the University of Florida plays right into this disturbing trend.
Of course, politicians have been named as college presidents before, but as of 2014 only about 2% were from elected or appointed office, and these appointments have almost always been controversial. And as bad as things were in 2014, we’re even more polarized today.
I’ve been interested in Sasse ever since he became a senator because, like me, he has a PhD in history. Along with Newt Gingrich, he’s one of the two most prominent history PhDs in American politics. He received his doctorate from Yale in 2004 with a thesis on the rise of the Christian religious right in the US, worked for former President George W. Bush’s administration and then, after a short period teaching and consulting, became president of then-tiny Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska (now Midland University, with 1,600 students enrolled) for a few years before running for the Senate.
By contrast, the University of Florida has over 60,000 students, as well as a huge faculty and staff. On that basis alone, I find it hard to believe that Sasse, with his limited management experience, would have emerged as the sole finalist (or perhaps a finalist at all) in any fair and transparent job process. But in the world of regressive action, qualifications aren’t that important.
What Sasse has going for him is political clout and a reputation as a man of integrity, for his principled criticism of former President Donald Trump over the lies about the 2020 election and his vote to impeach the former president for setting the stage for the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But if he has such integrity, why is he potentially aligning himself with DeSantis – who is busy positioning himself as the next generation of Trumpism – by taking this job?
What’s worse though is that as a politician, Sasse has regularly taken positions that will make it difficult – and according to some of his future prospective students impossible – for him to lead the whole of the University of Florida community.
For example, in 2015 Sasse spoke out against the Obergefell vs Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that required all states to recognize same-sex marriage. What does that mean for LGBTQ students (and faculty and staff) at Florida to have a boss who has taken that position? Students are worried.
A current freshman at Florida, RJ Della Salle, told the student newspaper that he didn’t know whether Sasse was really prejudiced against LGBTQ students or was just pretending for political gain. Either way, he said, “We either have someone who’s a genuine homophobe as our president or we have a sleazy politician who just says what the people that he’s trying to get elected by want to hear.”
Sasse has responded to this criticism by stating that Obergefell is the “law of the land,” so there’s no need to worry, but that kind of reassuring rhetoric was used by conservative nominees to the Supreme Court about Roe v. Wade (and we know how that turned out – those protections of “settled law” are gone).
Speaking of abortion, as president of a major university, Sasse would have significant responsibilities over the reproductive health of students and employees, especially in a college town where so many access health care from university-affiliated sources.
He has denounced abortion repeatedly over his career. Rahul Patel, the chair of the search committee, has said that “[Sasse is] putting aside politics and coming back to academia to lead us through this exciting new era.” Students at Florida, already organizing protests, don’t believe you can just erase a long history of hostile political acts by taking on a new job title.
To be sure, I also wouldn’t approve of sitting Democratic senators being offered such a job. Imagine the reaction to US Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia becoming president of the University of Michigan, or Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona taking over the University of California. Like Sasse, Sinema even has a PhD and limited experience as a part-time professor. The issue here is that politicians take positions that are, by their nature, partisan. A public university has to be something else.
At their best, American public universities are wonders of the world (disclosure: I work at the University of Minnesota). They are profoundly (small-d) democratic, or at least should be, so long as they are able to offer a high-quality and low-cost education to the citizens of their state. But the more they become politicized, a practice led by Republicans like DeSantis, the less they are able to fulfill their mission as a common good for all. Instead, the appointment of Sasse threatens to turn the University of Florida into just another partisan plaything. Now that’s regressive action.