The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
UF is no stranger to being a pawn in the government’s game.
Politicians peeking their heads into the world of higher education and attempting to play puppet master is not new by any means. It is not something unique to highly polarized states like Florida and is not some novel trend seen only in recent years.
You can trace the history of politicians leading universities around the country to 1800, when Abraham Baldwin founded and presided as the first president of what is now the University of Georgia, all while serving as a Georgia Senator. And you can trace this pattern even farther back in time.
Most leaders of American higher education institutions come from an academic background, from professors to presidents or chancellors of other schools, according to the American Council on Education. Only 15% came from outside higher education and 2% came from elected or appointed office jobs.
The University of Florida has almost only been led by former academics, with the exceptions of former presidents O’Connell and Criser.
But this does not mean the government has had no role in UF’s day to day operations, including who was allowed to study here and what was allowed to be taught.
At the time of WWII, the fear of communist students at Florida schools shook state legislators especially hard (POV: you squint just enough, take a couple of steps back and you find yourself in the 1950s. Pretend you’re a rich white man who holds public office, and somehow all students who were gay were also communist).
The Johns Committee, which was largely unsuccessful in blocking desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, made it the group’s mission to ensure no student at any Florida institute of higher learning was homosexual or communist: anyone who went against their conservative ideology.
In documents that were so shameful they were almost all destroyed by the committee, there were details of inhumane, long interrogations of students and faculty at schools around Florida, specifically at FSU, USF, UF and FAMU.
Johns Committee investigators ripped students out of class, took professors from their offices and cornered faculty in bathrooms if they were suspected of being gay or knowing people who were gay, or were communist or knew people who were communist.
Let me reiterate. A group created and funded by the Florida government was allowed to expel students and fire staff at state universities if they were even suspected of being gay or communist.
All of this leads us to today, in times where Gov. Ron DeSantis passed Senate Bill 520 that allows for the entire presidential selection process for public universities to be shielded from the public eye and largely exempt from public record.
After it passed in March 2022, the bill took effect immediately, coinciding with a time when USF, UNF, UF, FIU and FGCU were all searching for new presidents, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Important to note:
- USF released their final two candidates prior to choosing interim president Rhea Law.
- UNF not only contracted an outside organization to conduct the presidential search to ensure neutrality, but also released a list of four candidates prior to choosing Moez Limayem.
- FIU released a list of their final-12 candidates’ demographics before landing on interim president Dr. Kenneth A. Jessell
- FGCU released a list of their top-three candidates, along with their application materials.
According to bill co-sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes, this is how the measure intended the process to go. He wanted the early part of presidential searches to be secret to attract top-tier applicants, who may not want to jeopardize their current jobs, but required universities to lift that veil of confidentiality when “a final group of applicants” emerges.
So, most universities followed the bill’s stipulations., UF is the only one to fail to provide any insight into the process under the excuse that the final candidates requested to not be publicly named unless they were the sole finalist.
The University of Florida certainly is not the only American institution to bow to state and federal government officials’ commands, but it does seem to have an inclination to do so.
It’s ignorant to ignore the fact that UF is a top-5 public university situated in an increasingly conservative state, trying to save face with the people who fund a portion of the university’s operations (AKA the state government), and to be real, any institution in this position would probably make the same mistakes as UF.
This doesn’t make it right or justifiable.
A public university should not put the needs of the institution and the politicians it answers to above the needs of students who pay to learn there. It’s scary this is a continuous theme that must be stressed multiple times throughout UF’s history.