The University of Florida’s recent decision to hire Nebraska Republican senator Ben Sasse as its president spurred debate. Many on the Left predictably lamented having a Republican lead a major university. The Right was divided. Some praised Sasse for his previous university experience and independent voice. Others, including former president Donald Trump, criticized the pick, deeming Sasse a “RINO.” Still others speculated on the role of Florida governor Ron DeSantis in the move.
DeSantis did not pick Sasse to be president of the University of Florida, however – Florida’s Board of Trustees did. But DeSantis has appointed several of these trustees, including the chairman of the board, Mori Hosseini, with whom DeSantis has a close friendship. Prominent Florida journalist Marc Caputo reported, “DeSantis’s man at UF has engineered Sasse’s hiring.”
Sasse has a solid conservative voting record and won praise for his time as president of Midland University. But he accomplished little in the Senate. He ran for a second term, though many suspected he had no interest in serving. His resignation confirms these suspicions. Sasse enjoyed sticking his thumb in the eye of Republicans when it suited him. Early in his term, he received media attention for opposing Trump in 2016. He muted his opposition to Trump when he was battling for reelection. After Sasse won the primary for a second term, which guaranteed his re-election, he resumed attacking Trump.
The University of Florida is the main university for America’s fourth most populous state. U.S. News & World Report ranks it the nation’s fifth-best public university. It will be the most prominent university to have a right-leaning president. But Sasse’s record casts doubt on whether he will seize this opportunity to bring real change.
Former governor Mitch Daniels’s presidency at Purdue University offers a useful perspective. Daniels had a stellar conservative record as governor of Indiana, but he retreated from cultural issues and called for a “truce” with liberals on social issues. Daniels took this approach to Purdue. There, Daniels worked wonders, preventing tuition increases and increasing educational offerings. But Purdue recently planned to require critical race theory classes for music students – at least until public backlash made the school backtrack. Purdue also runs a “health equity” initiative, led by former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who thinks banning abortion is racist, has deemed any criticism of himself racist, and supported mask mandates as late as this past spring. Only time will tell if Sasse follows Daniels’s approach.
DeSantis has sought to reform higher education, by limiting tenure and requiring balance in curriculum at Florida’s universities. If Sasse undermines these goals, it would disrupt DeSantis’s record on education and give Trump an issue to attack DeSantis on in 2024.
The higher-education debate does not end in Florida. Conservatives criticized South Dakota governor Kristi Noem for kowtowing to the NCAA by vetoing a bill to require students to play in their biological gender’s division in sports. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin has sought to end woke efforts at the Virginia Military Institute by putting conservatives on the board of trustees.
A public university in South Carolina conducted research on “gender affirming” care for children, and the University of South Carolina released a “pronoun guide.” The University of Tennessee requires “diversity work” in order for professors to gain tenure. The University of Nebraska allows students to “report” “offensive speech.” These three states have Republican governors and state legislatures.
Less than 10 percent of public university professors are conservative, yet 23 states have Republican governors and state legislatures. These 23 states could do more to support political diversity in academia.
It remains to be seen whether Sasse will make any difference at the University of Florida. But his appointment is a reminder that politicians can influence policy at public universities. Every time they go to the polls, conservatives should ask what candidates are doing to fight the woke agenda on campus – and vote accordingly.
Todd Carney is a lawyer and frequent contributor to RealClearPolitics. He earned his juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.