Conservatives have long bemoaned the politicization of higher education, accusing faculty and administrators of catering to “wokeness” and engaging in cancel culture personnel policies. Now, we will see how deep their concern about academic freedom really is, thanks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.
The governor has championed an anti-protest law and a measure attempting to bar teachers from talking about race in classrooms, both of which were blocked in state court. He also backed the infamous “don’t say gay” bill, suspended a state attorney for speaking out against the state’s abortion restrictions and, most ominously, changed Disney’s tax status after the company criticized his LGBTQ policies. And he’s routinely tried to exclude the media from events.
With regard to higher education, DeSantis is widely suspected to be behind the University of Florida’s attempt to bar professors from testifying against the state’s voter suppression bill. He also supported legislation that created an exemption to the state’s open government laws, thereby allowing the University of Florida to conduct its president selection process behind closed doors.
Given that the governor’s chief of staff reportedly helped guide Sasse through the selection process, the ensuing outrage that DeSantis is attempting to put a Republican flunky atop the state’s flagship institution was hardly unexpected. 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.
Sasse provided a lame defense of his views during a recent student forum. “The fact that I’ve had political positions and policy positions that reflect the views of Nebraskans, it’s a different job than president of UF.”
He tried evading tough questions at the event. Inside Higher Ed reported:
When asked about his position on laws proposed by Florida’s state Legislature concerning academic freedom, such as the so-called Stop Woke Act, Sasse was decidedly more cagey. He said that while he is “a defender of academic freedom, full stop,” he has “a lot more to learn” about what the legislation in question would mean for institutions in Florida.He also said he wants to ensure that the university is a place for “robust debate” and warned of the dangers of “indoctrination” in the classroom.
In other words, don’t expect him to criticize DeSantis’s attacks on the First Amendment.
He’s also done an about-face on academic tenure, which he eliminated while serving as president of Midland University in Nebraska before running for Senate. The Gainesville Sun reports, “Questioned about his criticism of tenure while at Midland, Sasse [said] that the school and a major research university such as UF are ‘obviously hugely different institutions.’”
If DeSantis wanted a slippery, right-wing politician for the job, he chose well. 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. Nate Monroe at the Florida Times-Union commented, “Sasse’s turgid, buzzy prose does not reveal the mind of an education reformer but that of a wishy-washy dilettante. Sometimes he says very little … At other points he merely repackages bland ideas into Ponzi-like sales pitches.”
Sasse is the quintessential affirmative action hire that Republicans love to denounce. His selection certainly appears to be based on political identity, not merit. No one can seriously argue that Sasse is the finest candidate in the country for the position. DeSantis might as well have put in the job description: “Compliant Republican hostile to liberal ideas.”
DeSantis will almost certainly get his pick. But students, donors and faculties have choices. If they choose to shun an institution that is becoming a pliant accessory to the governor’s political ambitions, chalk one victory up for the free market.
Meanwhile, conservative critics of politicized higher education can be put to the test: Do they favor academic freedom, or just academic freedom for people who think like they do?