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Monday, December 05, 2022

Sasse, state university system’s silence speak volumes

UF keeps making national headlines for the wrong reasons

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

The Alligator staff has continually prepared for a shift in UF’s presidency since the moment President Kent Fuchs announced his resignation Jan. 5. We’ve worked diligently to update members of the community on the presidential search process — one that’s been met with more challenges than before. 

However, despite the three semesters of reporting from our hard-working staff, the announcement of Sen. Ben Sasse as the sole presidential finalist came as a shock to The Alligator. 

Shock has quickly turned to outrage — culminating in the scene at Emerson Alumni Hall Oct. 10 that made national headlines. 

As protestors forced their way into Emerson Hall — effectively interrupting Sasse’s first public on-campus appearance — UF officials were forced to reckon with why this demonstration occurred and how it could’ve been prevented. 

At The Alligator, we believe the root of this anger lies in the state’s fundamentally flawed presidential selection process. 

Florida’s Senate Bill 520 has largely transformed state universities’ presidential search processes. Effective since March 15, it’s provided collegiate presidential candidates with nearly impermeable shields of anonymity by keeping certain early-stage details hidden from the public — most notably the identities of the candidates. 

In theory, SB 520 appears to be practical: It allows notable university leaders to be considered for presidential roles at other educational institutions, simultaneously making it easier for them to avoid public scrutiny if they don’t receive those roles. 

In practice, however, the law has transformed the Florida university system’s presidential search process into something almost unrecognizable. SB 520 is a huge departure from Florida’s transparency laws, lauded for its above-average access to public records brought about by the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law

The lack of transparency sets up universities like UF for controversy, such as when only one candidate is selected as a finalist in a pool of more than 700. 

That’s not to say UF didn’t have more finalists originally. The state law gave insurmountable leverage to the university’s 11 other candidates who refused to go through with campus visits unless they were named sole finalists.  

We believe the naming of one sole finalist in UF’s presidential search reflects a major flaw within the implementation of SB 520. But don’t take this from us — take it from Jeff Brandes, the state senator who helped shape it. 

The goal was to get a group of finalists, not announce a sole finalist, Brandes told The Tampa Bay Times. UF’s selection of Sasse wasn’t the right way to go about the search, Brandes said, and makes it harder for the law to not undergo changes in the next legislative session. 

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Whether you agree with the senator’s beliefs, it must be recognized the process resulting in his selection had some weaknesses. 

How could students possibly have planned a calmer response to Sasse’s consideration if they were only informed once every other finalist had been dropped? 

Similarly, how could UF administration have prepared for students’ response if the community wasn’t given the chance to follow along in the process?

Many of those questions remain unanswered due to a continued silence — now on Sasse’s part. 

Sasse had no media availability throughout the presidential search process. He’s remained tight-lipped in communicating with the press, which includes The Alligator. Through continued silence, our coverage doesn’t provide all the details our community so desperately needs. 

This lack of transparency has only been exacerbated further by Sasse’s role as a politician. 

Rahul Patel, chair of the presidential search committee, told The Alligator Sasse was an “academic first.” If this were true, Sasse wouldn’t have spent the past seven years as a senator — a position he’s held longer than his post as president at Midland University. 

For a university that’s been under fire in recent years for being a political pawn of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the choice is a bad look at best. The university continues to garner bad press, and in the case of Sasse, The Alligator’s Editorial Board believes this could’ve been prevented. 

Large news outlets aren’t just highlighting Sasse’s recent nomination because of the outrage it has generated from a large number of UF students. They’re doing so because it’s revealed the cracks below the surface of the university's presidential selection process.

If you’ve felt blindsided by the announcement of Sasse as the finalist, we have too. Despite the difficulties it has spurred, we’ll continue to remain transparent throughout our reporting process — whether UF and the state university system choose to do the same.

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