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Three Cheers for (UF) President Sasse
My advice for the Senator turned President of the University of Florida
“Hey hey! Ho ho! Ben Sasse has got to go!”
That was how Ben Sasse, the former U.S. Senator for Nebraska, was welcomed late last year at the University of Florida, where he became President this morning.
To say that left-wing students and professors at UF are unhappy about his appointment would be an understatement. A crowd of over 1,000 protesters disrupted the Senator’s town hall event, banging on windows and preventing the community from asking questions of the Presidential finalist.
“This will be your life everyday if you accept a position here,” warned a union of graduate students. (Sen. Sasse and I share the distinction of having been protested by large crowds of students on a college campus)
To the distress of the activists, Sasse took the job. This week, as he takes the helm, I want to congratulate President Sasse and offer some unsolicited advice. Leading the fifth-largest university in the US is a big job and a big opportunity. But getting into the institution is just the first step, and the pushback from students will be minor compared to the fight ahead with entrenched administrators.
The Sasse takeover at UF is but one front in a wider battle to restore trust in institutions across our country. Another front is also in Florida — Governor Ron DeSantis’ shakeup at the New College of Florida, the state university system’s honor college. I am myself the chairman of UATX, a new university which we announced in this very publication. UATX is an effort to transform institutions from without by creating a competitor — but working from within is also critical, especially at a large institution like UF.
As someone who spends a lot of time overcoming bureaucratic hurdles so that competence and common sense can prevail in the United States, here are eight pieces of advice to make the Sasse Presidency a successful one.
Pop the administrative bubble
Administrative bloat in the last few decades has been extreme. In the 25 years ending in 2012, administrators (professional employees that don’t teach) grew at twice the rate of students at U.S. colleges. In the same period, tuition at 4-year public colleges more than tripled. In effect, students and families are paying a lot more to subsidize a class of well-paid bureaucrats — without much educational benefit.
It’s not just finances that are hurt by the bureaucratic encroachment. College administrators are even more ideological than the professors, which poisons the intellectual environment. So, cutting back on bureaucracy is a critical tool to fight for liberal education.
My first order of business would be to assess the growth of bureaucracy at UF. Where have bureaucrats grown faster than students or teachers? Where have the budgets exploded? Then, it’s time for accountability and layoffs — the benchmark should be 50%. If the bureaucrats want to stick around, they should have to justify themselves for once.
Bring in the innovators
Education at a university has three key parts: preparing students to be citizens in a free society, preparing them to understand moral action, and preparing them for work.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the exclusion of businesses and innovators from academia isn’t just hurting our ability to educate students for real work — it’s breaking the liberal elements of education, too.
Those who innovate or build things in the real world have different perspectives than the professors and bureaucrats, and as such the academic institutional culture often rejects them. No degree? Dropout? Good luck getting credit from academics.
Your job, on the margin, is to bring these people back in. They should be on the board, they should be in classes, and they should be on campus. Not only will the education be more relevant for future work, but the students will benefit from a more balanced, dynamic intellectual environment.
Get a good lawyer (to fight the other lawyers)
In addition to bureaucrats, university administrations are also full of lawyers. Lawyers are, by nature, experts in the art of obstruction and delay. In the case of UF, they will be allied with the bureaucrats, whose jobs they will work to protect.
Whenever there’s a political issue or an issue deemed “sensitive,” lawyers dictate the response, driven by their own biases. They can make it very difficult for a leader to make change. And on campus, their extreme risk aversion creates its own dysfunction. For example, university alcohol bans driven by lawyers have abounded across the U.S. And only lawyers could believe that such rules would actually reduce dangerous drinking, and not increase it.
Lawyers regularly scare university boards and leaders into illiberal decisions on a variety of issues. So, my advice would be to hire your own legal warrior who is ready to call the bluff of the bureaucrats and their lawyers. Be ready to fight; you can be certain that they are ready to fight you, and have already made preparations.
Captured academic departments shouldn’t control hiring
One of the biggest generational mistakes in American education has been giving near-total authority to departments in faculty hiring.
In the humanities and non-technical fields, that means that radicals with extreme postmodern views will hire only other radicals with postmodern views. The result: history departments totally dominated by critical race theorists and Marxists.
In the sciences, it means that area-experts opt to hire other area-experts with the same views on their field. Many of the most important breakthroughs of the last 60-70 years have been the result of interdisciplinary work. When narrow departments only hire people who fit their own mold, innovative scientists with novel theories or the wrong qualifications get excluded, and science stagnates.
Real intellectual diversity and scientific progress demand the dilution of professorial power. The first universities to figure this out will reap the benefits.
Don’t reward tantrums
The prevailing wisdom among many campus bureaucrats and even professors is that students should be shielded from things that will offend them.
The better way to run a university is to guarantee that students are offended, that they encounter ideas and people who are radically different from themselves. They should confront those ideas, learn why they disagree, and how to articulate that disagreement. They might even learn that they don’t disagree.
This is how people grow and get stronger. People who can't deal with differences and whose reaction is to throw a tantrum aren’t a good fit for universities. So, let there be many protests — and let them be loud. But don’t ever give in to one. Don’t reward tantrums.
Given that the protests began before his tenure did, I don’t expect President Sasse will have any issues dealing with protests.
Public universities belong to the public
Legislators have chartered universities since the early days of the Republic — even before it in some cases. During the Civil War, President Lincoln authorized the first land grants for universities. But in recent generations, federal bureaucrats at the Dept. of Ed have gotten used to running things.
As sure as the sun rises, D.C. bureaucrats will ally with campus bureaucrats to advance a political agenda. But we can re-assert citizen control. The next “dear colleague” letter to come down from on high in Washington, D.C. should be thrown where it belongs — in the trash. Restoring the role of states and state legislatures, which represent the citizens most directly, should be a paramount goal.
UF should be an institution of, for, and by the people of Florida — not any accrediting body or federal bureaucrat. To President Sasse, I’d say: expose the federal bullying; publish the letters and your bold responses.
Merit still matters
When many of the leading institutions are at war with merit, attacking certain ethnic groups on the basis of “equity” and eliminating standardized tests to enforce it, other institutions have an opportunity.
Just a few years ago, the faculty senate of the University of California system — a crown jewel of American public schools — commissioned a study to study admission tools. They found that the SAT was the best tool to admit a racially, socio-economically diverse, and successful freshman class. Then, the system scrapped the SAT anyway. Harvard, for its part, is facing a looming Supreme Court decision over its anti-Asian admission practices.
Schools like UF can capture the low-hanging fruit — i.e. those students who get left behind due to subjective admission measures and neo-racist discrimination. In the early 1900s, it was Jews who faced discrimination at top colleges. And we’ll ultimately look back in shame on this period in the same way as that one.
American meritocracy has been a great engine of social mobility. Our universities have helped make the American economy more dynamic than any country in history. We should be embracing, not trashing, the model that made it happen: elevating the brightest young people, no matter their ethnicity.
Bring the board to campus
I keep in touch with a number of board members at top universities, including Stanford, my alma mater. These are very successful people who care about the institutions. The problem is that they don’t see the issues up close. And often, administrators lie to board members about what goes on.
My advice here is simple: talk to student leaders and groups who are disfavored by the institution and its internal bureaucracy. At Stanford, administrators have waged war on the fun and traditions that have defined the school since its inception. In one particularly egregious case, a university administrator actually told a fraternity facing suspension that their case was hurt by the American flag flying on their house lawn. More recently, the school has bullied its famously-rowdy marching band; ask student groups and you’ll quickly learn that they are terrified of arbitrary action from administrators.
The same is sadly true for many lecturers and professors, especially those who aren’t clearly part of the illiberal brigade. But if you ask the question when the administrators with power to make their lives miserable aren’t listening, they’ll tell you the same. Everyone is walking on eggshells. It’s no surprise that when UATX was announced, we had several thousands of professors immediately inquire — people are desperate for change and for alternatives.
Board members are given a fake reality by administrators. If they knew the truth, there might be action. Your job as President is to not look away from any of it, and make sure the board sees it, too.
My closing bit of advice is to remember that this really is a battle. As you’ve already learned, President Sasse, the internal culture of the institution sees your appointment as a declaration of war. The bureaucrats, activists, and professors that dominate will never give you an ounce of credit — except where you surrender to them.
So, meet them on the battlefield. We’re rooting for you — and ready to be in the fight with you to overcome illiberal forces. The public is behind you, as well.
Many assume that you’re going to lose, including some who are supportive and a lot more who aren’t. The permanent academic bureaucracy assumes you’ll give in, that you will want your life to be comfortable, so you’ll echo other university Presidents and compromise with the illiberal mob until all is quiet and not much has really changed. They assume that the administrators who dominate today will dominate long after you’re gone.
It’s time to prove them wrong. Good luck.
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