The University of Florida faculty senate took a vote of no confidence Thursday in the national search for the school’s next president, overwhelmingly rejecting a process that resulted in one finalist for the job.
The move came less than a week before the university’s board of trustees will interview the finalist, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, setting up a vote that day that could make him UF’s 13th president.
Senate members emphasized that Thursday’s vote was not about Sasse, but about a selection process that they said lacked transparency and faculty input. During debate over the measure, however, some faculty members expressed concerns over Sasse’s candidacy and suggested a resolution to reopen the search. That measure failed to gain enough support.
Much of the opposition to Sasse has centered around his stance against same-sex marriage, which has been criticized by LGBTQ advocates. Some have questioned whether his views are at odds with the university’s non-discrimination policies.
In the resolution that passed, the preamble states the process “has undermined the trust and confidence” of the senate.
The document, approved by a 72–16 vote, took aim at the fact that the three faculty members who served on UF’s presidential search committee were not able to confer with other faculty during the process. Committee members were required to sign a document promising to keep the panel’s deliberations confidential.
Faculty leaders told the senate they were confident Sasse was someone who could put aside his beliefs for the greater good of the university. But some members turned the question back on faculty senate chairperson Amanda Phalin, who has a vote on Nov. 1, when the university’s trustees will interview Sasse.
“Can you set aside your personal opinion to reflect those who you serve?” biology professor Hannah Vander Zanden asked.
Phalin, who was not on the search committee, said the process is ongoing and she has reached out to LGBTQ groups on campus to ask further questions next week, but that she will act as a “fiduciary” of the university and vote in the way she believes is best for UF.
Sarah Lynne, a senator in the Family, Youth and Community Sciences department, asked faculty on the search committee if Sasse’s public positions on LGBTQ issues were discussed.
“I think it was something we considered not just with that candidate but with other candidates maybe who had emphasized a certain thing in their career or one or another,” said Lisa Lundy, one of the three faculty members on the committee
Those members indicated they had little time to learn about Sasse before he emerged as a finalist.
“I’ll be honest: When we went to go meet with the candidates we didn’t know who we would be meeting until very quickly before we’d be meeting with them, and so I’m looking at the credentials related to the job description and that’s the conversation we had,” Lundy said.
David Bloom, former chair of the faculty senate and a member of the search committee, said seeing Sasse’s name gave him pause. But the night before the interview, he said he looked up Sasse’s record and asked him about LGBTQ issues, which he felt he answered in a way that didn’t raise concerns.
Other faculty questioned the rationale given by the search committee that the 12 people they spoke to before selecting Sasse said they did not want to proceed if they were not named as the sole finalist.
Michael Davis, a senator from the College of Medicine, questioned what the 11 other candidates were told.
“The only thing they have in common is the search committee,” he said. “I feel like that had to have been suggested to them.”
Lundy said it was never the search committee’s intention to advance only one candidate.
“I think optics is always a concern,” she said. “I think we did the best that we did with the situation we’re in.”
University spokesman Steve Orlando said the search firm hired by the university advised the committee that releasing more than one name “would materially adversely impact the quality of the prospects that we would be able to attract.” He said all but one of the schools ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s Top 10 public universities named only one finalist in their most recent presidential searches.
Judith Wilde, a scholar who studies university presidential searches and search committees, said in an interview last week that she has not seen evidence to support the claim that qualified candidates would face repercussions if named publicly.
The faculty vote follows action last week by the UF student senate, which took a vote of no confidence in the search committee and the student body president for her role on it.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.