Friday, December 2, 2022

Ben Sasse’s Contract at Florida’s Flagship Has Lots of Perks. But Not Tenure.

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There are plenty of goodies in Ben Sasse’s new contract with the University of Florida, where the Republican senator from Nebraska is slated to start as president on February 6.

With final approval from the State University System’s Board of Governors on Wednesday, Sasse secured a five-year deal that will pay him $1 million annually in base salary with opportunities for bonuses. Notably absent from the contract, however, is a relatively standard provision for incoming college presidents at major research universities: tenure upon appointment.

Sasse, who is 50 years old and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University, once led a small college in Nebraska and briefly taught. But he does not bring a traditional academic résumé to the table, and granting him instant tenure may well have stirred up further controversy around his appointment. He has already been met with protests and rancor from students, professors, and staff members, who question his qualifications and his politics.

Under Sasse’s contract, he will be appointed as a full-time faculty member “upon the end of his service as president.” At that point, he will serve “in an appropriate rank and academic department” at an unspecified salary, the contract states. The appointment is “subject to approval” by the chair of UF’s board. There is no mention in the contract of whether the position will be tenured.

A UF spokesman declined to elaborate on why Sasse’s contract is silent on the question of tenure, and Sasse’s lawyer did not respond to an email on Thursday. Nor did UF’s board chairman.

Broadly speaking, tenure is academe’s most coveted status, offering effectively permanent appointments to faculty members with carefully vetted records of achievement in their fields. Tenure is perpetually under fire, often criticized as a system that protects underperforming professors. But it remains a hallmark of the academic enterprise, ideally forming a bulwark against encroachments on academic freedom and offering a license for scholars to pursue controversial or unpopular ideas.

So what does it mean for Sasse to come into the UF presidency without tenure? For starters, it tempers for now what might have been a passionate discussion about whether the president of a top-ranked public research university would qualify for tenure there. It muddies the waters, too, about the strength of Sasse’s “retreat rights,” which can afford a college president a secure tenured appointment if things don’t work out in the C-suite. Symbolically it may say something, too. The contract sets Sasse for now outside the system of tenure — a system that Sasse has pledged to defend but that nonetheless remains a favorite punching bag for his political party.

To hear it from UF faculty members, Sasse will come into the job, after resigning his Senate seat in January, as more of a mystery than his recent predecessors. Unlike someone who rose through the ranks of academe, earning tenure along the way, there is less of a presumption that Sasse supports and appreciates academic freedom and the role that tenure plays in protecting it. That’s one reason he has probably fielded more questions than most would-be college presidents about whether he believes those fundamental tenets.

Last week, during a public interview with UF’s Board of Trustees, Sasse described himself as “a zealous defender of and advocate for academic freedom,” and “a defender of tenure at a research institution.” There are principled reasons for embracing those values, but Sasse also flagged for the board a “more crass, calculating” imperative to do so.

“We want the best faculty to want to stay at this place and be recruited to this place,” he said, “and that requires that we have academic freedom and tenure. And so I look forward to advocating for those positions.”

Sasse’s stated support of tenure “at a research institution” suggests a bit of nuance on the topic. Under Sasse’s leadership, Midland University, a Lutheran college in Nebraska, replaced traditional tenure with three-year rolling contracts, a spokesman told The Chronicle.

While principally known for his political profile, Sasse comes to UF with more academic experience than other career politicians who have assumed college presidencies in recent years. In addition to his Ph.D. at Yale, he holds a bachelor’s from Harvard University. For two years and 10 months, ending in early 2010, Sasse was an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, officials there said. It is reasonable to question how a self-styled “occasional professor” would fare under UF’s standard tenure evaluation.

Paul A. Ortiz, a history professor at UF, said that Sasse would not meet the criteria for tenure at the university. What little faculty members know about Sasse’s academic record is thin, Ortiz said.

“Tenure says, regardless of how good-looking Ben Sasse is, regardless of how transformative his vision is, ‘Where’s the beef?’” Ortiz said “‘Where’s the CV? Where’s the work record we can go and judge?’”

Ortiz is chair of UF’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents faculty members and other employees.

Beyond a short news release, UF has offered scant information about Sasse’s academic background. On Thursday, in response to a public-records request from The Chronicle, the university provided copies of his CV and a “profile.”

Metrics for tenure evaluation, even for traditional academics, are sometimes the subject of intense debate. In 2019, Harvard denied tenure to Lorgia García-Peña, an associate professor of Romance languages and literatures who was widely respected in her field. The decision provoked discussions about whether universities undervalue emerging scholarship on race and ethnicity. In 2021 the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was lambasted for failing to act on a recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones, developer of the 1619 Project, be granted tenure.

Given his background, Sasse might logically be appointed to a faculty slot in the history department. But no one has discussed with the department’s chair the idea of appointing Sasse there with tenure.

“Should such a request be made, we would, I presume, follow our normal procedure of appointing a faculty committee to review the candidate’s dossier and make a recommendation for the department’s consideration,” Jon F. Sensbach, chair of the department, said in an email to The Chronicle. “Any final determination is made by the Board of Trustees.”

But faculty members haven’t had a strong say in whether recent UF presidents were given tenure. W. Kent Fuchs, UF’s current president, and J. Bernard Machen, his predecessor, were appointed as full professors with tenure in engineering and dentistry, respectively. Both came to the job after long careers in academe, and their appointments were spelled out in their contracts.

“Faculty approval was not required previously or now,” Steve Orlando, a university spokesman, said in an email, “but we have always sought input from faculty, students, alumni, and others in presidential searches.”

(The search committee that recommended Sasse held numerous listening sessions, but many on campus were furious that only one finalist was made public. In October the Faculty Senate voted no confidence in the search process.)

UF’s appointment of a sitting U.S. senator as president comes at a time when faculty members have expressed concern about political interference in university affairs. In a recent high-profile case, professors objected to the fast-tracked tenured appointment of Joseph A. Ladapo, who was Gov. Ron DeSantis’s pick as the state’s surgeon general. Ladapo, who was previously an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been criticized for his skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines.

Sasse’s expected appointment has invited comparisons with other politicians turned college presidents. On the question of tenure, two recent case studies suggest different approaches. Mitch Daniels, a former governor of Indiana and soon-to-be-departing president of Purdue University, does not have a tenured appointment or the promise of one when he steps down, a spokesman said. But John E. Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House, told The Chronicle that he had assumed the Florida State University presidency with tenure in the law school. (Thrasher is now president emeritus of Florida State.)

Amanda J. Phalin, chair of UF’s Faculty Senate, said in an email to The Chronicle that she expects Sasse isn’t too concerned right now about a future role on the faculty.

“I think the contract is appropriate,” Phalin wrote. “I know he’ll be focusing on the university as a whole, including zealously defending tenure at our institution.”

As a senior lecturer in the department of management in UF’s college of business, Phalin is untenured and works on an annual contract. She is a voting member of UF’s Board of Trustees, and she joined the board last week in its unanimous decision to appoint Sasse as president. As a result of her vote, Phalin is facing a vote of no confidence in the Senate, which is slated to take up the resolution next week. The university’s student-body president, who also voted for Sasse as an ex officio member of the board, is facing calls for impeachment.

Granting Sasse tenure would only have inflamed tensions, said Danaya C. Wright, chair-elect of the Faculty Senate. “It would just have added fuel to the fire had they given him tenure,” said Wright, a law professor. Doing so, she said, would have been “a slap in the face to the faculty who put in all that work” to earn tenure.

With or without tenure, Sasse’s contract offers plentiful perks. If he hits established goals, his starting base salary of $1 million will increase by 4 percent each year. Under the contract, he will be provided with housing in the Dasburg President’s House, with “utilities (including internet service), housekeeping, home-office facilities, equipment and services, landscaping, maintenance, and groundskeeping, security, repair, and maintenance.” During Sasse’s term as president, tuition will be waived for members of his “immediate family,” which “is defined as the parents, children, and grandchildren of Dr. Sasse.”

Sasse’s contract does not say he will be granted tenure — but it also does not say he won’t.

“The way this language is structured, this is a bit of an artful dodge,” said James H. Finkelstein, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University. “While it doesn’t grant him tenure, it gives an enormous amount of discretion to the board chair in terms of how to resolve that issue, should that time come.”

Finkelstein and Judith A. Wilde, a research professor in George Mason’s school of policy and government, have reviewed and analyzed more than 300 contracts for college presidents. After reviewing Sasse’s contract, both said they were struck by the power it invested in the board’s chair to make decisions independent of the full board. It falls to the chair, for example, to approve Sasse’s future faculty appointment and salary. (The full board would be “promptly notified.”)

Another notable clause in the contract speaks to what might happen if Sasse resigned after some scandalous transgression. If the chair determined “in good faith” that Sasse was resigning for a reason that would have been fireable for cause, Sasse would be “deemed to have declined” a faculty post or any other employment at UF. That’s a lot of power for one board member, Wilde said.

“Once again, it’s one person making a decision,” she said. “How does he actually get into the head of Dr. Sasse to know that that’s why he’s stepping down?”

It is not difficult to envision a scenario in which a board chair explains to a president that he or she must resign or be fired by the board. But higher education is littered with examples in which a few board members applied that kind of pressure in private, only to invite explosive public disagreement on campus and among themselves. Some notable examples include the University of Virginia and, more recently, Michigan State University.

UF’s current board chairman, Morteza (Mori) Hosseini, is considered a particularly powerful governing-board leader.

By definition, a president’s contract envisions worst-case scenarios: resignation, termination, even death. Despite faculty misgivings about Sasse, professors say they want to see him do well. But the learning curve will be steep, said Ortiz, the history professor.

“Ben Sasse is going to have to take 100-level courses to figure out how UF works,” Ortiz said. “In other words, he’s got to play catch-up. We all want him to succeed. I want Ben Sasse to succeed as president of the University of Florida because it matters to my students, it matters to faculty, it matters to staff. We don’t want him to crash and burn.”

As for tenure, Ortiz said, he’s happy to tell the new president what it’s all about: “If he called me and said, ‘Paul, tell me how tenure works,’ I would say, ‘Yeah, let’s go get a cup of coffee.’”





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