Trustees | Heckler's Veto

Backlash to Ben Sasse’s candidacy to lead the University of Florida highlights anti-conservative bias on campus

THE HILL   |  October 19, 2022 by Steven McGuire

Critics of Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R-Neb.) bid to become president of the University of Florida (UF) offer another sorry example of academia hurting itself for the sake of petty political opposition. Questions about the selection process and Sasse’s qualifications are fair game. Complaining that his conservative views are unwelcome on campus highlights the political bias that pervades our universities and threatens to erode public support for them.

The process by which Senator Sasse was selected – a closed search yielding one candidate – is not ideal, but it is far from unusual. An open and transparent process involving multiple candidates is preferable, because it has the best chance to build greater public trust. But it is not uncommon for presidential search processes to take place behind closed doors or to yield only one candidate.

Some believe closed searches produce better results because top candidates might not want to disclose publicly that they are being considered for a position. Would a sitting senator openly pursue this job knowing it would make splashy headlines back in their home state and Washington, D.C.? Probably not.

Others have questioned whether Sasse is qualified. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and previously served as president of Midland University in Nebraska. That makes him by any reckoning academically qualified. And for the record, several political figures have been highly successful at leading universities. Former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) and former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.) come to mind.

So, what is the real reason the Nebraska senator has drawn fire? “Sasse has political views that do not align with the values that the students at the University of Florida hold,” reads a petition that has gathered over 1,000 signatures. “They are discriminatory and non-representative of our student population.”

The University of Florida College Democrats were more specific. “Senator Sasse is an outspoken anti-gun control, anti-choice, anti-academic freedom, and anti-LGBTQ+ politician,” said the group. “This selection does not reflect the diversity of our Gainesville and University of Florida community and blatantly harms the communities UF claims to value.”

The “diversity” extolled by UF’s College Democrats apparently does not apply to conservatives.

Historian David M. Perry agrees, arguing on CNN that the move “defiles the ideals of a public university as an agent of equity and as a common good.” He describes it as a “regressive action” that is “intended to preserve the status quo, or even roll it back to an older model that privileges white guys like Sasse and DeSantis.”

Exactly the response you would expect from a liberal professor who believes the university should serve his political vision.

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin also attacked  Sasse, echoing the belief held by many on American campuses that “diversity” means no conservatives. Rubin writes, “Sasse’s vocal opposition to same-sex marriage and support for right-wing Supreme Court judges who disposed of nearly 50 years of abortion precedent naturally don’t sit well in a diverse university setting.”

She also played into the obnoxious trope, popular in the academy, that conservatives are less intelligent than liberals: “Sasse has long been considered bright by the standards of the U.S. Senate, but that does not necessarily mean he is up to the intellectual rigor of a major university,” sniffed Rubin.

One of Sasse’s Yale dissertation committee members did the same. “As a member of his dissertation committee, ‘keen’ is not the word that comes to mind,” Tweeted Dr. Glenda Gilmore. Is she saying she did not do her duty when she approved his Ph.D.? Or is she revealing that politics trump the decency she owes a former student?

How ironic that Gilmore is Yale’s Peter V & C Vann Woodward Professor Emeritus of History, given that C. Vann Woodward defended “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable” in his 1974 Woodward Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale.

The most important kind of diversity at a university is diversity of thought. Senator Sasse’s liberal critics are suggesting they do not want any part of it.

The fact that the very idea of a conservative serving as university president provokes such a response is proof positive of just how biased American higher education has become. Liberals complain that this is a political appointment, but in reality who is politicizing the academy?

Setting aside the damage this politicization does to our universities, which should be devoted to the pursuit of truth wherever it might lead, do Sasse’s critics realize how they are undermining public support for their own institutions?

The University of Florida and other state schools are funded by taxpayers. In Florida, just over 5.2 million residents are registered as Republicans; more than 4.9 million are registered as Democrats; and nearly 3.9 million have no party affiliation. Why would millions of non-Democrats and their statehouse representatives continue to bankroll, or send their kids to, schools where their party affiliation and values are not just trashed and suppressed but effectively banned? Why would conservative donors continue to support these schools?

Publicly funded universities do not need to mirror the values and voting preferences of the folks who foot the bill, but they should not demonize half the population. Schools that do not maintain some semblance of balance are biting the hands that feed them.

Senator Sasse’s critics are upset about steps Republicans are taking to push back against political bias on campus. At the same time, they are making those interventions seem more urgent.

This article originally appeared here.


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