U of Florida’s Ben Sasse Takes Higher-Ed Flimflam Out to the Woodshed

UF President Ben Sasse used strong, clear communication + policy that served to prevent campus violence. Other leaders should take note.

There are certain words I customarily do not utter on matters either on or off the gridiron, given my own alma mater affiliation with a certain Southeastern Conference university located well-north of the Florida-Georgia line.

But after reading University of Florida President Bill Sasse’s most recent May 3 column in The Wall Street Journal (“The Adults Are Still in Charge at the University of Florida“) — published in the wake of other elite universities’ Captain-Chaos approach to campus management of so-called “peaceful protests” — only two words come to mind:

I strongly recommend everyone read Mr. Sasse’s column, including my favorite segment of it, as follows:

America is sick-and-tired of being sick-and-tired with weak-mindedness, intellectual rot, moral ambiguity, and nonsensical gaslighting that currently prevail at far too many elite colleges and universities – as well as at a White House that dismisses and minimizes far too much of it as only mere “disruption.”

In his WSJ column, Mr. Sasse makes the clear-headed case for common-sense guardrails that should govern legal campus speech and protest… but hold accountable that which goes off-the-rails as legally noncompliant, placing the rights and safety of others at risk.

As an aside, I have one close colleague who teaches at one of the universities most impacted by recent bedlam.

In clear distress last week, she texted me that she had to take matters in her own hands by directing her students not to attend class on campus this past week, as she feared for her students’ physical safety due to obvious threats and well-documented actual incidents of violence that were occurring in real-time — thanks to leadership ineptitude.

She was wise in making that choice: the very day she made the decision to hold class online and not in-person on campus (at the initial disapproval of her supervisor), the very building where she taught was among those overtaken in violent, illegal trespass by the protestors. Her students were thanking her… and so were their worried parents.

In contrast to Mr. Sasse’s even-handed but unambiguous policy and compliance communication in Florida, on the opposite end of the governance spectrum, we’ve witnessed this past week Biden White House Spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre’s oddly scripted, de minimis acknowledgements of the damage being done to campus communities and public property by rampant lawlessness.

Administrative “leaders” at such institutions as UCLA and Columbia appeared to take their cues by what was on display from President Biden’s decidedly AWOL status, lest he offend those either breaking the law or supportive of those who do.

For her part, pertaining to Ms. Jean-Pierre’s PR role — including what I consider to be bizarre talking points and nearly robotic, repetitive word choices about this most recent campus-chaos situation — the White House’s press briefing transcript quoted Ms. Jean-Pierre on May 1, 2024, claiming only a “small number” or “small percentage” of student involvement SEVEN TIMES while taking journalists’ questions about the barrage of unlawful and non-peaceful campus take-overs, threats to innocent students (notably those of Jewish faith), and hate-speech-fueled protestors engaging in criminal trespass, assault, defacement and destruction of public property, and any number of other offenses.

  1. “And what we’re seeing is a small percentage of students.  That’s what we’re seeing.”
  2. “We’re talking about a small group of students who are disrupting that ability for students to have that academic experience.  That’s what we’re talking about here.”
  3. “There’s a small number of students who are causing the disruption, and I’ve been very clear about that.”
  4. “I’ve been very clear: a small number of students.”
  5. “And I’ve also said over and over again, we believe that it is a small percentage of students who are causing this disrupt- — disruption, and they’re causing a disruption that — that really takes away from students’ academic experience — might take away, for some, their commencement experience, which is supposed to be a really important day for many of these graduates.”
  6. “It is a small percentage of students who are causing this disruption.  And students should be — feel safe to go to school.”
  7. “And I wouldn’t go that far in your question because, as I stated and you stated, we believe it’s a small number of students who are causing this disruption.”

Ms. Jean-Pierre’s quotes on May 1 made “clear” her fixation on student participation rates in the protests – all the while, not bothering to unmask the “real” identities of protest organizers otherwise running the show – presumably because the White House either doesn’t know or doesn’t care or simply doesn’t want to face the political consequences of revealing what it does know.

When asked earlier last week by ABC News if President Biden had “spoken to” university officials and whether he was “satisfied” with how they were handling matters, Ms. Jean-Pierre — as is typical of her media relations mode — deflected / sidestepped / avoided this valid media question entirely.

She opted instead to give a non-answer that provided no indication either way as to what on earth President Biden is or was actually DOING to hold university leaderships accountable for grossly mishandling their respective campus situations, at great risk to public safety and in complete violation of law-abiding students’ rights to access educational services.

Video evidence below:

Logical people value honesty and authenticity… and with credible communication backed up with congruent, fair policy that’s enforced.

In contrast, they reject running-roughshod over rule of law, as allowed by so-called “leaders” who care little about their legal duties and moral obligations to society, while caring far too much about political posturing and window-dressing. Repetitive talking points that say little and do even less are non-starters.

Again, my kudos to the leadership in Gainesville for modeling a better way.

Based in East Tennessee, Mary Beth West, APR, FPRCA, has 30 years of public relations and strategic communication experience.


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