You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The headline and subhead for Ben Sasse's recent The Wall Street Journal op-ed is overlaid against a photo of Sasse, who is smiling widely. The text reads: "The Adults Are Still in Charge at the University of Florida: Higher education isn't  daycare. Here are the rules we follow on free speech and public protests."  Below that text, in smaller print, there is an attribution: "Ben Sasse, University of Florida President/Commentary in The Wall Street Journal"

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | University of Florida | THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida, wants everyone to know that he’s a grown-up.

In an op-ed entitled “The Adults Are Still in Charge at the University of Florida,” published this month in The Wall Street Journal, Sasse directs his disdain at both the student protesters currently roiling higher education and the “embarrassing timidity of many college administrators.” Though the photo accompanying the op-ed shows a scattered group of students holding signs while surrounded by empty pizza boxes, Sasse insists that he will stand firm against “throwing fists, storming buildings, vandalizing property, spitting on cops and hijacking a university.”

As far as one can tell, no protesters have thrown any fists, stormed any buildings, or vandalized any property at the University of Florida, where the prohibited activities, punishable by a three-year suspension, now include littering, sleeping outdoors, and building a chair. Nine protesters have been arrested, three of whom were sitting in chairs—unclear whether they were built or purchased—and one was charged with battery for allegedly spitting on a police officer (an allegation disputed by student protest organizers). Since Sasse insists that “universities must say what they mean and then do what they say,” UF’s rules will no doubt be consistently enforced going forward: litterbugs and nappers at the University of Florida, consider yourselves warned.

A spokesperson attributed these actions to the fact that the “university is not a day care,” which is demonstrably true, since children at day care do in fact tend to litter and sleep. If they build chairs, they are probably made of Lego bricks and it is unclear if that would be covered by Florida’s list of prohibited activities.

Rather than simply criticizing Sasse’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, we should, I think, embrace it as an opportunity to set aside, at least for a moment, our many differences of opinion about the value and virtue of the ongoing campus protests and to agree that some forms of hypocrisy are so staggering as to merit condemnation. These days common ground should be welcomed wherever and whenever it can be found.

Sasse writes that universities are “in the business of discovering knowledge and then passing it, both newly learned and time-tested, to the next generation. To do that, we need to foster an environment of free thought in which ideas can be picked apart and put back together, again and again.”

Nice—except that at Florida’s public universities, “free thought” isn’t so free and only some ideas are entitled to be “picked apart.” The measure popularly known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, imposes strict limits on the way a wide range of topics, related especially to race and gender, may be taught at public institutions in Florida. The constitutionality of the law has been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression—the latter hardly a proponent of anything “woke.” In issuing an injunction temporarily barring enforcement of the act in higher education, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker described it as “positively dystopian.”

On this topic, Sasse, the president of Florida’s flagship public university, has been silent, or perhaps I should say has shown “embarrassing timidity” in defending the autonomy of his faculty and the ability of his community to “foster an environment of free thought.”

Surely with “Stop WOKE” in mind, Sasse complains that “many academic disciplines have capitulated to a dogmatic view of identity politics … With little regard for historical complexity, personal agency or individual dignity, much of what passes for sophisticated thought is quasireligious fanaticism.”

To be fair, I think there is an element of truth in Sasse’s criticism and that, to paraphrase Tyler Austin Harper in The Atlantic, higher education, especially as it has evolved at elite universities, is in the absolutism and extremity of some of these protests reaping what it has sowed. But the appropriate way to address that complex topic is to allow it to be examined and debated on college campuses and in college classrooms—not, as Florida has done, to impose strict limits on the manner and content of academic work. If aspects of higher education have veered off course, by all means let’s confront that—through exactly the kinds of debate that are now banned by Florida law.

As for “quasireligious fanaticism,” well, that is hardly a state of mind that is at the current moment limited to one side or another of our vast political divide.

“Life-changing education,” Sasse writes, “explores alternatives, teaches the messiness of history, and questions every truth claim.”

Here is education as prescribed by Florida law: “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” This is the inverse of what Sasse describes as “life-changing education”—open to neither alternatives, nor messiness, nor questions about the truth of absolute claims. To proclaim that any historical narrative can be purely factual is to misunderstand the nature of the historian’s work, and to insist that the United States was from the start faithful to the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence is, plainly, to dismiss the “messy” reality of slavery.

If Sasse’s performative paean to the ideals of the university were simply a one-off, it could and probably should be quickly dismissed. But Sasse has emerged as one of the most visible spokespeople among the powerful (and hypocritical) “free speech champions” of the political right, and his argument is symptomatic of a problem for higher education that is both deep and widespread. He describes the actions of what is, in the greater scheme of things, a relatively small number of student protesters as “naked threats to the mission of higher education.” This particular threat, which has monopolized the attention of the news media and provided ammunition to those who see political gain in attacking colleges and universities, is coming from a fairly disorganized group with little real power and, it appears, little understanding of how to build effective coalitions. It is a particularly disruptive but not especially unusual example of students directing their fear and frustration—over climate change, racism, war—at their campuses because these are the only targets that seem reachable. No one who understands how universities function actually believes that there will be a massive shift in endowment strategies or a stream of official university statements condemning Israel. The deals that have been struck on some campuses to end protests have actually ceded very little ground.

Far less attention is being paid to the actual threat coming from those who are organized, powerful and determined: the politicians and outside groups who are pushing through legislation in multiple states that poses the greatest challenge to what Sasse calls “an environment of free thought” that most of us have seen in our lifetimes. The “naked threats to the mission of higher education” in Florida and Ohio, Indiana and Texas, come not from a few dozen angry students—dismissed by Sasse as “20-year-old toddlers”—but from state houses and from university presidents who fail to defend academic freedom.

Many of the students who have in recent weeks broken the law or violated campus rules will in the end pay a price, as they should: The willingness to pay that price is, after all, what lends civil disobedience its force. Those who are not breaking the law but making the laws that are undermining the commitment to free and open inquiry will, I fear, pay no price at all. The “adults” in Florida seem indeed to be in charge, and that is far more frightening than any encampment of tents on a college green.

Brian Rosenberg is president emeritus of Macalester College, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Whatever It Is, I’m Against It: Resistance to Change in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2023).

Next Story

More from Views