Boyd and Sasse

UT President Randy Boyd and UF President Ben Sasse both became university presidents after leaving positions in Republican politics.

To the staff of The Independent Florida Alligator,

I am writing to you because we now have something in common beyond our status as student papers. Our university presidents are both (ex)-Republican politicians. 

Granted, our President Randy Boyd only ran for office, but it matters that the Board of Trustees approved him as interim president the very month after he lost his primary bid for governor of Tennessee to Bill Lee, who is, by all accounts, his good friend.

What does it mean to have a once political sloganeer as a college president? Of course, it means student protest at first. As editor of a smaller paper, I have admired your multifaceted, persistent coverage of the dramatic backlash against the election of Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska to the office of president of the University of Florida (including my favorite detail – the clear bag policy for student protestors!).

It’s ancient history by this point, but there was fierce protest of the election of Randy Boyd as interim president by the UT Board of Trustees on Sept. 25, 2018. Students began using the hashtag #RunOutRandy and a student who rushed the podium at the board meeting was removed by cops.

The Student Government Association held a meeting that night where they presented a fruitless bill to urge the board to reconsider their vote. 

At issue, of course, was Boyd’s time as a Republican candidate for governor, during which he was candid about his conservative Christian values, his antiabortion stance and his support for the Second Amendment. 

Less important to students, and yet more germane, was his long history of philanthropy and activism before his run for governor, which mostly entailed opening educational opportunities for low-income students in the state. (There was hardly a murmur from students when Interim President Boyd was approved as president in 2020.)

As the protests stop and the president gets to work, our job as student journalists becomes harder. Anger is easy to cover. I’ve always loved interviewing protestors because they give such print-ready quotes. 

Moving forward, however, Sasse’s Republicanism and his status as a politician will operate in much more subliminal ways which are harder to uncover and decode.

Of course, the anger will blow up again, especially when he inevitably misjudges the difference between being a politician and a university president. 

At UT, Boyd’s optimism and good guy persona have not always been a strength. He has, at moments, misapplied his chumminess on Capitol Hill in ways that undermined his responsibilities on campus. 

These are the flash points that drive coverage of a politician-turned-administrator. They are also complex moments of growth and change. 

In fall 2021, when Boyd agreed to pay for breakfast at a fundraiser for his friend Mark Pody, an ultraconservative state senator who supported a ban on gay marriage and the “Stop the Steal” movement, he responded quickly to student and faculty protest by backing out of the event and hosting a town hall to hear student concerns. 

I gained a great deal of respect for him, because he stood in front of a room full of students and said he’d made a mistake. He and Chancellor Donde Plowman also pledged greater support for the LGBTQ community, and their promise seems to be paying off in big, but underrecognized, ways

I say this to demonstrate that even when a university president enters their job in a storm of anger and resentment, they will still do good things for the university.

What’s more difficult to track is when these good things bring with them a change in campus culture towards the world of the Republican politician, which is also the world of the businessman. 

Boyd is a successful businessman, both in experience and temperament. This is clearly another difference between him and Sasse, who was a university president before entering politics and who holds a doctorate in history from Yale. But still, there are striking commonalities in their visions as president. 

As you reported in February, one of Sasse’s first moves as president was to establish a new UF campus in Jacksonville that will focus on business and technology. 

“UF is Florida’s flagship university, and we’ve got a special calling to serve Floridians,” Sasse said. “We have a lot to discover and to learn together, but there’s real potential for UF to add to Florida’s skilled workforce, attract new private investment and support existing growth industries.”

Switch around a few Fs and Ts, and this is a quote I have heard from Randy Boyd multiple times. You can hear in the words “private investment,” “growth industries” and “skilled workforce” both the functionalization of the college degree and its entanglement with capitalist forces. I can tell you from experience that the humanities faculty at UF will not be Sasse’s biggest fans. 

There is another commonality between our states that makes Boyd and Sasse’s experience as politicians all the more relevant. Our governors are jockeying for national attention to see who can create the most sensational headlines and spark the most liberal outrage. (Spoiler alert: you’re winning.)

When a Republican politician is made president of a university that relies on the good graces of a Republican state legislature, you may find yourself getting more funding from that legislature than ever before. That means new buildings, new campuses and dorms, new schools and more scholarships for more students. But legislators don’t just give you millions of dollars and expect nothing in return.

There is now an Institute of American Civics at the center of UT’s campus that, though nonpartisan, was the brain child of Gov. Bill Lee, who wanted to curb “anti-American thought” on public campuses in the state (I think we know what that means).

Tens of millions in state funds are going to a new business building that will replace three buildings that house humanities departments and student services

That college is named after the billionaire father of billionaire former Governor Bill Haslam, who is currently teaching a course in that college, along with our chancellor, who is a scholar of business who was hired by businessman Randy Boyd. 

I digress.

I don’t know what the story will look like for Sasse, especially at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis is making it his mission to root out “wokeism” from public education in Florida, a goal that includes the authoritarian takeover of offending schools. 

I worry for UF, but I am hopeful that you will be there as a resource and a guide for those who also need to decode what is happening at this moment in Florida. 

As student journalists, we are used to being dismissed as biased when we do our job and attend to power differentials that create lesser outcomes for marginalized groups. But the news is never all bad, and sometimes anger creates real change. I am hopeful to see examples of Sasse standing up for students, even when it alienates the state legislature. 

His tenure is likely to be a similarly mixed bag of missteps, accomplishments, further alienations and growth. Covering all sides of a public figure is difficult, but I admire the work you do greatly and I know you all are in a position to create incredible journalism at a pivotal moment for the state and university. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

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