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Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, will soon leave Washington, D.C., for an environment that may be almost as political as Congress: Florida higher education.
The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved Sasse as the next president of UF Tuesday. Even faculty and student representatives on the board threw their support behind him, despite sharp questions from their constituents on a litany of issues.
Sasse faced campus protests and a vote of no confidence in the search process, which left the Nebraska senator as the sole finalist. Critics questioned his stance on LGBTQ+ issues, abortion rights and other matters, as well as his qualifications. While the board largely focused its questions on Sasse’s vision for the University of Florida, concerns about his views on social issues and his limited academic experience were front and center during the public comments section of Tuesday’s meeting.
The first public comment set the tone that most others would follow.
“We, as a whole, do not want Dr. Sasse as the next president of our institution,” said Paul Wassel, president of UF’s Graduate Student Council, who questioned whether the search process that yielded Sasse was as exhaustive as trustees have claimed.
Additional public comments posed questions about Sasse’s lack of support for LGBTQ+ students and his opposition to same-sex marriage; his 2010–14 stint as president of Midland University, where he reportedly required faculty to sign loyalty oaths that they would not speak ill of him or the institution; and the search process itself, which many speakers felt lacked transparency. (Sasse was not asked about the loyalty oath claims and did not respond to a question on the subject from Inside Higher Ed sent via Twitter direct message. Sasse’s Senate office did not provide a response.)
Multiple speakers also pointed to the contrast between Midland, a small, private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,000 students during Sasse’s presidency, and the University of Florida, a research institution with Division I athletics and 60,000 students.
Bryn Taylor, a Ph.D. student at UF, suggested that the university would be better served by a president with research experience and knowledge of state funding mechanisms. Taylor also chided the board for choosing a sitting U.S. senator as the sole finalist, noting, “It’s hard to get more political than that.”
Some also criticized the university for denying students a voice in the process, referencing a recent crackdown on free speech at the University of Florida in which administrators announced they would begin enforcing an existing but obscure ban on indoor protests. Outgoing UF president Kent Fuchs announced that the rule would be enforced following protests at a prior Sasse forum that cut the event short and prompted the university to move its next forum to a virtual setting.
While some were eloquent in their dissent, others were blunt, with one student telling trustees, “Y’all really fucked up.”
Of the dozen commenters, only one spoke in support of Sasse, highlighting his leadership skills and credentials and chiding the faculty for pushing back on the presidential selection process.
Sasse provided no response, watching the public comment portion with a guarded expression.
After the public comment section, the board turned to the interview portion of the meeting, asking Sasse various questions as students protested outside the building.
Amanda Phalin, chair of the University of Florida Faculty Senate, asked Sasse if he would commit to the continuation of UF initiatives around LGBTQ+ rights and transgender health care.
In response, Sasse said his record on such issues would be “indistinguishable” from Fuchs’s.
Phalin also asked Sasse whether he had been in contact with the governor’s office about the job, which Sasse denied, saying that he had not spoken with Ron DeSantis since 2016. Ultimately, Sasse sought to distance himself from politics. Though he said he would advocate for UF in the state capitol, he pledged “political celibacy.”
“My shepherding through this process has been from people around this table who persuaded me to keep listening when I told you I wasn’t a candidate and didn’t plan to become one,” he said.
Board member Richard Cole asked Sasse about making students from China feel welcome, a reference to Sasse’s frequent criticisms of China on issues including trade and human rights. In response, Sasse said “there’s no anti-China position,” focusing his criticism on the Chinese government, which he called out for authoritarianism and the genocide of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.
But the bulk of the questions focused on Sasse’s vision for the institution.
He was asked about his views on political interference and academic freedom, a topic that has loomed large in Florida, where legislators have enacted laws against teaching certain topics, including critical race theory; government intrusion in the tenure process; UF muzzling professors to prevent them from testifying against the state—a move administrators later backed off of; tinkering with accreditation; and the recent hiring of a DeSantis ally as chancellor of the State University System of Florida.
In response, Sasse promised he would defend academic freedom at UF, noting that it was necessary at research institutions.
Over all, Sasse positioned himself as someone looking to lead UF into the future, praising the institution and the state and noting that higher education is always evolving, requiring institutions to do the same in order to remain relevant and produce workers who meet the needs of employers.
Questioning the Process
Trustees, for their part, defended the search, which remains under fire from those unhappy with the clandestine selection process.
For UF, this is the first presidential search after a change to state law that allows colleges to advance only a single finalist, withholding the names of other candidates—a break from past practices. Though the trustees emphasized that the search initially considered hundreds of candidates before narrowing those down to a smaller group, critics expressed displeasure.
The United Faculty of Florida called out UF in a Twitter thread last week demanding the names of other finalists and alleging that the search may have violated Florida’s public records laws.
Jeff Brandes, the Republican state lawmaker who sponsored legislation to close presidential searches in the state, has also been critical of the search process that led to Sasse’s appointment. Brandes recently told The Tampa Bay Times that UF had violated the intent of the new state law.
Board members, however, were defiant, arguing that the opaque search was necessary. Board chair Mori Hosseini said that candidates would have dropped out if the search weren’t closed. He also noted that closed searches are common practices across the U.S.
“The bottom line is if we had run a process that required more than one finalist to be publicly disclosed, none of the top 12 people we interviewed would have stayed,” Hosseini said.
Since UF was targeting sitting presidents, those candidates did not want to be named, he said.
Though Sasse was approved by UF’s Board of Trustees, he still needs approval from Florida’s Board of Governors, which will likely sign off on his appointment at its November meeting. And while a salary was not specified, Sasse is set to earn in the neighborhood of $1.5 million.
Sasse does not yet have a starting date, nor has he announced when he will officially resign from the U.S. Senate—with four years left in his second term—to become UF’s next president.