Ben Sasse Is the U. of Florida’s Next President. His Critics Are Seeing Red.

The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday defied clamorous opposition, voting to make Benjamin E. Sasse, a sitting Republican U.S. Senator, the university’s next president. By handing the big job to a 50-year-old Nebraskan, who is better known for his speeches in the Senate chamber than his academic bona fides, the board set the stage for a college presidency that will invariably be colored by the nation’s political division.

There’s a familiar ring to Sasse’s story so far: The votes have been cast and counted, but a lot of people still don’t want to accept that he’s going to be president. (His appointment must still be ratified by the university system’s Board of Governors, which is widely expected to do so.)

Now begins for Sasse a difficult task of securing legitimacy with a skeptical constituency of students and faculty members, who have found in the senator’s political record cause for concern, and have questioned the process by which he emerged as the only known choice to lead one of the nation’s top public research universities. About three weeks ago, UF announced that a search committee had made Sasse the sole finalist for the UF presidency, a fact that immediately set off criticism that he had been foisted upon the institution through an opaque process.

By the time Sasse arrived on Tuesday at the Gainesville, Fla., campus for a public interview before the board, his appointment felt like a fait accompli. But Sasse fielded several direct questions related to some of the most contentious issues surrounding his candidacy, particularly whether he could lead in an apolitical fashion. He assured the board he would do so.

“I would have no activity in partisan politics in any way as I arrived at the University of Florida,” Sasse said. “I wouldn’t speak at political events. I wouldn’t make political contributions — partisan-political contributions. I wouldn’t surrogate for or assist any candidates.”

Sasse said he would follow the model established by Mitch Daniels, the soon-to-be-departing president of Purdue University, who was previously the Republican governor of Indiana. Like Daniels, Sasse said, he would make a “declaration of political celibacy.”

This place is special and therefore shouldn’t be micromanaged. It’s not that complicated a message.

Tuesday’s proceedings began with public comments from a dozen people, who with near uniformity condemned the candidate and the process by which he was selected. Sasse, seated at a long table across from the trustees, looked on intently as speakers at the podium questioned his qualifications, which include a stint as president of Midland University, a private Lutheran institution in Nebraska. Other speakers blasted him for a past statement criticizing gay marriage; and condemned what they described as a plainly partisan effort to install a Republican politician as the flagship university’s president.

“Our university’s mascot is a Gator, after all, not an elephant,” said Janice Dees, a research administrator at UF.

Some of the toughest questions for Sasse came from Amanda J. Phalin, who, as chair of the Faculty Senate is a voting member of the board. Phalin pressed Sasse on several hot-button topics, including whether anyone from the office of Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, had played a role in luring him to UF. “No,” Sasse replied. “I do not think I have had a conversation with or been in a room with Governor DeSantis since he was a congressman in about 2016. I’ve had zero conversations with him about this, and have been shepherded through this process by no one.”

Sasse’s answer appeared to directly deny a recent report from Politico, which said that DeSantis’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, had been Sasse’s “sherpa through the university search process.” (DeSantis’s office did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a request for comment.)

Sasse and his opponents appear to agree on this much: We are living in a time of national anxiety. In Sasse’s version, “this electric moment” is a period of profound digital disruption, one that will lay waste to institutions that refuse to adapt. It’s a scary place. It crushes an old paradigm, ending a world in which people could work for decades in a single industry. Taking its place is a tenuous but exciting future that beats on a rhythm of relentless change.

This vision isn’t much different from what a lot of college presidents have to say about the world at our collective door, but it appeared to dazzle UF’s board members. Sasse, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University, seemed to revel in the chance to stake out a presidency of big ideas. He interlaced his comments with statistics, spoke often of “humans,” labeled himself a “romantic,” frequently mentioned Google, and once quoted Gainesville’s hometown hero, Tom Petty. Wearing a UF-logo lapel pin on his dark suit, Sasse appeared at pains to flesh out a larger identity as more of a historian or a futurist than a Washington pol.

University of Florida students protest during an open forum discussion with Sen. Ben Sasse at Emerson Alumni Hall in Gainesville, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022.


University of Florida students protest the choice of Sen. Ben Sasse as the institution’s president.

“I respect people’s right to express their opinion,” Sasse said, in a nod to his critics. “But I also think it’s pretty important for us to build anthropologies that are aware that people are a lot more than partisan positions. … One of the things that’s sad about our moment is that we often reduce whole humans to specific views on super-charged policy issues at a given moment. Humans are a lot more complex and interesting than that, and I really don’t care very much what my next door neighbor’s partisan views are on any question.”

It is not just “partisan views,” however, that have animated concern about Sasse’s appointment at UF. Many at the university feel UF is under siege by political influence, whether it comes through direct pressure, practiced obedience, or aggressive legislation aimed at higher education. Last year, the university came under fire for denying professors’ requests to participate as expert witnesses in litigation against the state on matters that included voting rights and pandemic safety. (The university reversed course under immense public pressure, assuring that academic freedom and free speech were valued and protected.)

Still, faculty members at UF frequently express fear that, by speaking publicly in opposition to the administration or the board, they invite retaliation or political retribution. Robert L. Hatch, a professor of community health and family medicine, told The Chronicle that his colleagues worried that he could be subject to reprisal for speaking with the news media about his objections to the presidential search process.

“There is a feeling not just of being cut out of the formal channels to make an impact, but there’s also a feeling of oppression here now,” Hatch said.

On Thursday, the university’s Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the presidential selection process.

Into this fragile juncture steps Sasse, who now must convince a university that he could be a solution to its political problem, rather than a symptom of it. Pressed on how he might repel political interference, Sasse suggested that the university’s excellence depended on its independence.

“I think it’s very important,” he said, “to be able to make a case that this place is special and therefore should be invested in, and that this place is special and therefore shouldn’t be micromanaged. It’s not that complicated a message.”

There is a feeling not just of being cut out of the formal channels to make an impact, but there’s also a feeling of oppression here now.

At another point, Sasse voiced his commitment to tenure and academic freedom.

Sasse will replace W. Kent Fuchs, who has led UF for nearly eight years. A classic academic, Fuchs was previously Cornell University’s provost. Despite these credentials, some professors have criticized Fuchs for what they perceived as his less-than-forceful resistance against political forces in the state. It’s an open question whether Sasse might take a different tack.

“If that’s a concern, the best person they can have is someone like Ben,” Daniels, the former Indiana governor, told The Chronicle. A long-time academic might be dismissed as a knee-jerk liberal, Daniels said, but Sasse can say “to those who would trespass on academic freedom, ‘No, not having that.’”

The bigger question for professors, though, may be whether Sasse would see the same threats to academic freedom that they do.

Before his appointment on Tuesday, Sasse sought the counsel of higher education’s conservative political class, The Chronicle has learned. He discussed the job with John E. Thrasher, the former Republican speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, who later served as Florida State University’s president. He also talked about it with Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, as well as with Daniels.

Few could probably better relate to the task before Sasse than Thrasher, whose candidacy and appointment at Florida State stirred up a lot of controversy and talk of political patronage. “I had protests. I had people shouting at me,” Thrasher told The Chronicle. “I had people with placards. I had a lot of stuff going on during the interview process, and I put my head down and just got through it. And I think that my advice to him was he needs to do the same thing. I think he’s qualified. I really do. He’s qualified to be president” of UF.

Thrasher said he told Sasse to “leave your politics on the front steps.” He also said that Sasse should meet with his toughest critics, just as Thrasher did. On his first day as president at FSU, Thrasher said, he met with representatives from Students for a Democratic Society, hardly his natural fan base. “They were mean,” Thrasher said. “They were rude. They were a lot of things, you know. But we sat down and talked, and that became the thing I did.”

By the end of Thrasher’s tenure, faculty members gave him high marks for job performance. One distinction, though, may be that Thrasher, as a Florida State alumnus, brought to the job a clear connection to the university and an obvious affection for it. For all of Sasse’s praise for UF as the “most interesting university in America,” he’s still subject to a carpetbagger label.

When Sasse visited UF last month for a series of public forums, protests were sufficiently intense to disrupt the proceedings. One scheduled meeting was moved online as a result. (At one point, Sasse briskly ducked into a police car and was whisked away, video showed.)

Bush, the former governor, said Sasse was unfazed by the demonstrations. “Come on, man,” Bush said in a recent interview. “You can’t take that stuff too seriously. And I’m sure he’ll win over people that are skeptical, just as John Thrasher did.”

Bracing for another round of demonstrations, UF warned students in advance of Tuesday’s meeting that it would enforce a regulation disallowing protests indoors. The university instead created a barricaded protest area outside Emerson Alumni Hall, where a few dozen protesters gathered in front of statues of the Gator mascots, Albert and Alberta. Police presence was robust, and those entering the building were scanned by metal detectors.

Protesters have registered a number of complaints, but have zeroed in on whether Sasse will be supportive of the university’s LGBTQ+ community. Sasse assures he will.

There is little doubt that UF’s more liberal students and faculty members will find plenty of political daylight between Sasse’s stated views on social issues and their own. But, in the Senate, Sasse has carved out a reputation for occasionally bucking his party. Most notably, he joined six of his Republican colleagues in voting to convict Donald J. Trump after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

“Once they get to know him, they’ll know that he’ll be tolerant,” Bush said. “He’s not going to impose his views on students or the faculty — nor should they, by the way.”

After Tuesday’s unanimous board vote in favor of Sasse, the senator shook hands with several trustees and left them to discuss his compensation. They agreed to pay up to $1.6 million, before departing to an adjacent private room. A phalanx of police officers, standing between the audience and the board, tightened their formation.

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