In a rare move, UF Faculty Senate votes “no confidence” in secret president search

By: - October 28, 2022 1:00 am

Pugh Hall at UF hosts the Bob Graham Center, among other programs. Credit: Spohpatuf via Wikimedia Commons

The University of Florida’s Faculty Senate voiced its disapproval of the secretive selection process for a new university president, with a vote of “no confidence” on Thursday over the sole finalist — Nebraska’s U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse.

The flagship university’s presidential search led to an emergency meeting Thursday, when faculty members agreed on a resolution declaring that the presidential selection process “undermined the trust and confidence of the University of Florida Faculty Senate.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. (Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

The vote of “no confidence” raised concerns about transparency in search procedures which were conducted confidentially in part due to a new law from the 2022 legislative session. The lone finalist announcement was in early October. Sasse has earlier been president of a small college in Nebraska.

Following immediate pushback from the UF community, the Faculty Senate voted on the resolution.

It reads, in part: “The next president should come already equipped to lead an institution of this caliber rather than aiming to learn on the job. Anything less will result in a lack of faith in leadership. The process of the thirteenth presidential search, conducted in accordance with the updated Florida State Bill 520, has undermined the trust and confidence of the University of Florida Faculty Senate in the selection of the sole finalist Dr. Ben Sasse.”

Dr. Breann Garbas, a clinical assistant professor with UF’s College of Medicine, who wrote the original resolution, said: “I ask you to consider this: Is a flawed process that results in the selection of a qualified candidate just chance? If so, we should count on different outcomes happening every time.”

“What we do here today is going to set precedent for future state university president selections and higher candidate selections across the state — so, we’re making history today,” she said.

The no-confidence vote came just days ahead of the scheduled UF Board of Trustees meeting to consider confirming Sasse as president next Tuesday.

The vote did not go without scrutiny from some of the Senate Faculty members.

Mike Davis, with UF’s College of Medicine, expressed the concern that the resolution may not be the most effective route to express disagreement with the presidential search.

He said during the Thursday emergency meeting: “The intentions behind this meeting are honorable — I am listening and learning — however, I’m concerned this vote may be the wrong approach. A vote of ‘no confidence’ is a complaint without a clear solution. Do we lack confidence in a process that meticulously complied with state law and U.S. policy? Are we saying that we have zero confidence in our colleagues on the selection?”

Another Faculty Senate member who did not provide her name voiced concern that the vote could set the stage “for a really disastrous relationship with our new president” if Sasse is ultimately chosen.

Hanna Vander Zanden, an assistant professor, was in support of putting forth a resolution to voice the faculty’s concerns with the process:

“Ultimately, this resolution is a public record to sort of formally lodge those concerns and in the spirit of what we pass is important because this is our voice. This is our only voice,” Vander Zanden said.

What does the vote mean?

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, explained that presidential searches have previously been open, giving faculty members the ability to have a voice in the process.

But the results UF’s secret presidential search has been “one of the most egregious violations of the traditional separation of political authority and university governance that we’ve ever seen,” he said, and the faculty are warranted in using an “exceedingly rare” move to vote no confidence.

J. Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida. Credit: UFF

“It shows that the entire institution, all of the faculty who are serving at that institution, have said with united voice that: ‘This is not OK. This person does not meet our standards. We do not approve of this process and you need to start over.”

He noted that while the United Faculty of Florida supports the no-confidence vote, he was skeptical as to how far the resolution will get with the Board of Trustees, noting that the UF higher-ups have been in controversies with the Republican DeSantis administration.

“In an institution where the Board of Trustees considers the institution first and has the institution’s best interest in mind … the Board of Trustees would hear a vote of no-confidence from the Faculty Senate, and they would take a step back and reevaluate the process and bring forward more candidates,” Gothard said. “Even if they wanted to keep Sen. Sasse in the running, they would bring forward more candidates to show why they really believe that he is the best candidate for the job.”

Gothard continued: “But, unfortunately, what the Board of Trustees at the University of Florida, including its chairman, have shown time and time again is that their loyalty is to Gov. DeSantis and to legislators in Tallahassee.

“My hope is that the vote would get their attention and cause them to do the right thing, but my fear is that they are so deeply entangled with the political process that they are willing to sacrifice the university to get whatever appointments or other benefits they might think they’re going to get by playing the political game here.”

Why so secret?

During the regular 2022 legislative session, Florida lawmakers from both parties approved an exemption to public disclosure laws for university president searches until the finalists are announced. Previously, candidates were available to the public from the beginning of the search.

Take Florida State University’s most recent presidential search in 2021, when big names such as former Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and others were made available to the public.

But UF’s presidential search is the first conducted under the new, secretive law. And the fallout from the results was immediate.

On Oct. 6, many UF students and staff reeled as a search committee recommended Sasse as the only candidate that the Board of Trustees should consider as outgoing Kent Fuchs makes his exit.

On Oct. 10, Sasse was scheduled to have an in-person question-and-answer session with faculty, staff, and students, which was disrupted by hundreds of UF students protesting and entering the room.

“Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Ben Sasse has got to go!” the protesters chanted, according to local coverage that day by, with concerns about the selection process and Sasse’s record as a political figure — mainly his stances on LGBTQ+ issues.

As the students overtook the Q&A room, Sasse finished the discussion via livestream from an undisclosed location.

The drama continued. Earlier this week, Fuchs sent an email notifying the UF community that the university enforcement of protesting rules would change: “The university will resume enforcement of a regulation on the books for at least two decades, prohibiting protests made inside campus buildings.”

“This policy will be enforced during the UF Board of Trustees meeting at Emerson Alumi Hall, where Dr. Sasse’s candidacy will be considered. Students who violate the regulation may be subject to discipline under the Student Conduct Code,” Fuchs continued in the email.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.