Ben Sasse and the War on Freedom at UF

by Aron Ali-McClory

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, a Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, was appointed unanimously by the University of Florida Board of Trustees to be UF’s 13th president.

However, as much as this story has centered around Ben Sasse himself in the past month, it’s deeply important to consider the context in which his coronation happened. 

As the right-wing Tallahassee regime has flexed its muscle in Alachua County, the university has responded by falling into lockstep with their demands. Under the administration of UF President Kent Fuchs, the DeSantis-appointed Board of Trustees has all but made it their mission to wipe out the notion of academic freedom at the University of Florida. 

Last fall, when three political science professors spoke out against being blocked from testifying against the state in a voting rights case, the university was quick to deny accusations of being against academic freedom. 

Only after coordinated pressure from the United Faculty of Florida alongside other unions and progressive organizations did Fuchs reverse his decision. Further still, when the university avoided having its accreditation revoked following an investigation related to the prior incident, the Board of Trustees boasted that it had been vindicated, as if it was taunting the very community that sought to preserve its freedom and dignity. 

And yet, as we speak, UF’s team of lawyers is using your tuition and tax money to attempt to appeal the federal judge ruling that UF violated the First Amendment by preventing professors from giving expert testimony. 

The hubris and fragile ego of UF administration and the Board of Trustees is on full display.

The Board of Trustees and university administration further turned a blind eye as professors spoke out about being pressured to destroy COVID-19 data, being told not to include the terms “critical” or “race” in their course titles, and more. Despite efforts to cover their tracks, that the university administration, led by Fuchs, and in lockstep with the right-wing of Tallahassee, was determined to wage an unrelenting war on freedom at the University of Florida. Their war, it would come to pass, would know no bounds, and succumb to no pressure as it had in the past. 

As the University of Florida embarked on a search for a new president to succeed Fuchs, it was clear this would be the next stage in their war on freedom. 

Using a recently passed state law, the university assured the community that it was taking input from a variety of sources.All the community could hope for is that the presidential search committee would stay true to its stated guidelines—which were clear about the need for finalists who were not only qualified, but demonstrated a commitment to core values like inclusion. 

In at least three of the 16 listening sessions held by the search committee, stakeholders repeatedly commented on how they do not want this decision to be politically motivated. The committee said two or more finalists would be named when the time came. In practice, none of this was true.

Instead, on Oct. 6, the community was backstabbed. A senator from Nebraska whose troubling right-wing politics could be dressed up as “moderate” was announced as the sole finalist. 

Seldom before had the university community come together so swiftly in opposition to the university as an institution; that evening, a vast coalition formed. Importantly, this coalition was not just of students — but of workers and faculty, too. Every campus union, including Graduate Assistants United, United Campus Workers, and United Faculty of Florida, worked alongside groups like the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Change Caucus in UF’s Student Senate to work on a response to the gross violation of trust that had been committed by the university. Independent and new organizers joined in as well, invigorated by the outright anti-democratic behavior of the Board of Trustees. By the end of the day, plans had been made.

It was immediately clear that the university community stood against Ben Sasse not only for his hate toward the LGBTQ+ community, horrible record on gun safety and reproductive rights, anti-labor sentiments, and other hallmarks of his political career, but also because of the process by which he was chosen. 

The nomination of Ben Sasse was a product of an illegitimate selection process that generated no buy-in from the university community, simply due to the fact that the community had no real means of input. If the presidential search committee actually considered the opinions of the community it supposedly serves as anything but worthless, a man like Ben Sasse would have never been even close to a finalist decision. 

It was clear that the given channels for providing feedback on the search were shams meant to merely pacify the UF community with the appearance of meaningful power. The only way to make the voices of the university community heard was to force the Board of Trustees and Ben Sasse themselves to hear us. 

On Oct. 10, frustration boiled into a mass protest that drew hundreds of students, workers, and faculty to the plaza outside of Emerson Hall. Within those walls, the Board of Trustees held farce forums with Ben Sasse to try and placate those very community members. Hundreds of protestors, united in their cause, and with power in numbers, entered the building and continued to peacefully demonstrate outside the room where the forums were held. After Ben Sasse acknowledged the presence of the loud, powerful protests, the room was vacated, and protestors were allowed to take the stage. Where the Board of Trustees was trying to legitimize Ben Sasse as the next leader of the university just moments ago, protest organizers now stood, our chants and signs expressing the true will of the university community. 

Later, when Ben Sasse was caught on film by a Young Democratic Socialists of America member fleeing into a cop car, which subsequently sped away, protestors cheered. It had felt like for the first time in years, that maybe the university wasn’t going to just go along with the war plan laid out by Tallahassee. 

However, the consequences of embarrassing the university on the 10th would be swift and harsh. UF administration would not take kindly to protests taking over the headlines not just across the state, but across the entire country.

Ever since Oct. 10, the University of Florida has dropped any pretense of being a free, inclusive community that was in any way independent of the right-wing in Tallahassee. Small groups engaging in direct actions, such as leafleting to donors at the Harn Museum of Art, or delivering the coalition’s demands to Student Body President, were faced with dozens of militarized police officers and barricades. 

Even as the overwhelming disapproval of the university community for both Ben Sasse and the presidential search process was institutionalized, first in a unanimously passed resolution in the Student Senate, and second in a near-unanimous vote of no confidence in the Faculty Senate, the administration made it clear that no dissent would be heard or considered in their decision making process.

As the clock ticked closer to Nov. 1, the repression became worse and more plain. Kent Fuchs, who had largely been absent in the collective outrage surrounding Ben Sasse, sent a fearmongering email to every single UF student that invoked a segregation-era code in the student code of conduct that bars students from protesting inside buildings. 

Fuchs dramatized the events of Oct. 10, and, as if he didn’t make his position clear enough, related the peaceful Emerson Hall protest in an interview with the Independent Florida Alligator to the usurping fascists who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

With no other option, the university community made itself heard, and in response, the administration didn’t listen, but instead amped up its security, villainizing and threatening anyone who dared to dissent.

When the Board of Trustees interviewed and approved Ben Sasse to be the next president of the University of Florida, the community was still determined to make itself heard. A protest of considerable size still gathered outside Emerson Hall that morning, but university police and barriers kept the crowd pushed up against the dangerous and busy University Avenue, with no regard for the safety of the community outside as it remained focused on ensuring the coronation went smoothly inside. 

Brave public commenters from across the UF community spoke directly to the Board of Trustees and to Ben Sasse, but to no avail. Despite perhaps one of the largest sustained collective outrages in recent memory, the Board of Trustees confirmed Sasse unanimously to his post.    

The war for freedom isn’t over, though. However much UF wants to smother progress and hope, we know and can see that it will not be able to do so forever. 

The coalition of unions and student organizers who came together against the administration has no plans to relent any time soon. 

The Student Body President, Lauren Lemasters, who voted as a member of the Board of Trustees to confirm Ben Sasse to the presidency, is being subject to impeachment proceedings by the Student Senate on grounds of malfeasance. 

What freedom we do have at the University of Florida must be protected and fought for at all costs, lest it be surrendered to the right-wing regime in Tallahassee. 

If these protests have made anything clear, it’s that together we have unimaginable power. As they recognize their loss of legitimacy, UF and the state of Florida are going to continue to issue threats. They are going to ask you to give away your power. Do not let them. 

Bravery will be necessary, lest you do their work for them and begin to censor yourself. The rise of fascism will be slow, deliberate, and masked as a return to safety, civility, and order. If there was ever a time, we must stand up, and fight back!

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