The University of Florida officially chose Ben Sasse as its next president on Tuesday, setting aside fears that the nomination of a conservative U.S. Republican senator from Nebraska could further politicize the state’s flagship higher education institution.
The university’s board of trustees – largely appointed by Republican governors – voted unanimously to appoint Sasse, 50, as president. The result of the vote was never in doubt: there were no alternative candidates for the post. Sasse said he would resign from the Senate by the end of the year.
One trustee, Richard Cole, said Sasse overcame his worries about hiring a politician. “I was very hesitant to think it was appropriate for us to bring in a politician,” Cole said. “You overcame that for me.”
“I’m incredibly satisfied,” Sasse said. It still faces formal approval from the Board of Governors, the panel that oversees all public universities in Florida. We expected that to happen. UF directors must also negotiate Sasse’s compensation, which is expected to be around $1.6 million.
Asked by administrators, Sasse said the political issues that culturally divide progressives and conservatives “have almost nothing to do with most of the puzzles we have to solve.” He added: “People are much more than partisan positions.”
Sasse pledged not to be involved in partisan political activities as president of the university and said he would urge Florida’s ruling Republican Party not to micromanage the school. He called it “political celibacy,” after a similar pledge from the president of Purdue University, a former governor of Indiana.
“It would be my plan, upon arriving here, to make a similar pledge of political celibacy to you,” he said.
When asked if the governor’s office had helped his candidacy, Sasse said he hadn’t spoken to Governor Ron DeSantis and hadn’t met DeSantis since at least 2016. The Florida Senate previously said there was no record of communications between Sasse and key GOP legislative leaders. there during the research process.
He described the evolution of UF under his presidency – “higher education is going to have to change a lot” – to adapt to what he described as technological and economic disruptions and the changing demographics of population across Florida. He said some of the changes would be uncomfortable and the university would have to serve not just young adults, but 35-year-old students as well.
Listen below: Jacob Sedesse reported this story for WUFT-FM.
Sasse said professors lecturing in classrooms wasn’t the best way to teach students and endorsed what he called a “wider suite of experiential learning opportunities.” ”, including internships, more lab settings, and other hands-on learning experiences.
“Students are not machines and universities are not assembly lines,” he said.
Asked about liberal arts education at UF, Sasse agreed it was as important as workplace development and science, technology and math lessons. In what could have been a swipe at students protesting his hiring, Sasse lamented what he said was a pervasive cancel culture on so many campuses.
“Where is the place to change your mind, to grow, to learn, to say you were wrong?” he said.
Sasse was the only finalist to replace the school’s outgoing president, Kent Fuchs, and become its 13th president. Sasse was president of a small private university for five years in Nebraska and has a doctorate in history from Yale.
Sasse’s political stances — including his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage — were deeply troubling to some students and faculty on campus in one of Florida’s most progressive cities. Former President Donald Trump is also no fan of the GOP senator, calling him a “high-profile and poorly respected senator” after Sasse voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. Around 100 students demonstrated behind barriers outside ahead of the vote on Sasse.
Sasse, who said he would step down as a junior U.S. senator from Nebraska where he has served since 2015, was previously president of tiny Midland University, a Lutheran-affiliated school in Fremont, Nebraska.
At Midland under Sasse, full-time enrollment doubled to almost 1,300 students, and he was credited with helping the university avoid bankruptcy and ultimately turn a profit at the end of his term.
Some former faculty members told UF’s campus newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, that a toxic workplace persisted under Sasse and faculty were forced to sign a loyalty oath to keep their jobs. , which kept them from denigrating Sasse or the university. It is generally accepted that such oaths would be unconstitutional at a public university.
Sasse opposed the cancellation of student loans, endorsed tenure reviews for professors, and hailed hybrid college courses that include online components as particularly effective.
As trustees gathered inside Emerson Alumni Hall on campus, police surrounded the building with barricades to prevent student protesters from disrupting their vote. Inside the building, armed officers visibly hovered a few feet behind the lectern where a dozen students and alumni delivered brief statements — almost all of them critical of Sasse — ahead of the vote.
“Once again, political interference has made UF the laughing stock of the university community,” said Bryn Taylor, doctoral student and co-chair of Graduate Students United.
When Sasse appeared on campus last month, hundreds of student protesters stormed inside the same building and broke off question-and-answer sessions by singing and banging on the walls and doors of the building. In an interview last week with the campus newspaper, Fuchs compared the student protests to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. No one was arrested on Tuesday or during the October 10 protests.
To avoid similar disruptions on Tuesday, Fuchs had warned students that UF would enforce decades-old regulations that prohibit students from protesting inside campus buildings. Violators would be punished under student conduct rules, which may include expulsion from the university.
Fuchs earned approximately $1.4 million in total compensation each year. The UF president lives in a gated multi-million dollar mansion on campus next to the law school. Sasse earned $174,000 from the Senate and in August said he owned investments worth at least $1.3 million and had a mortgage between $250,000 and $500,000.
Florida chose Sasse as the sole finalist for the job under a new state law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by DeSantis that allowed the process to take place in secrecy. The university’s faculty senate voted 72-16 last week Express no confidence in the selection process, citing a lack of transparency.
Search committee head Rahul Patel told donors Oct. 15 that other finalist candidates he had not identified were sitting presidents of the country’s top universities. “All of them had current positions,” Patel said, “made it very, very clear to us that they would not consent to be named, would consent to be named finalists publicly, unless they were the sole finalist.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, which sponsored the law, said lawmakers never intended the law to protect the identity of all but one of the finalists. “The goal was to get to the finalists, not to announce who the person was as the only finalist,” he said.
Board chairman Mori Hosseini said sitting university presidents applied for the position because they were assured their identities would not be disclosed. “In this way, the new law has helped us attract leaders from all over the country, which we could not do in the past,” he said.
Other schools — including the University of Michigan, University of Virginia and UC Berkeley — also named a single finalist in their presidential searches, Hosseini said.
Patel said more than half of the 12 applicants near the end of the process were women or people of color. Of the six final candidates considered, Sasse was the only one who was not currently a university president.
Sasse’s selection follows years of political storms under DeSantis and conservatives in the Legislature that swirled over the school, even as the governor’s administration increased funding for the university and allowed it to hire more teachers. Under Fuchs, Florida rose to fifth in the public university rankings with a $1 billion research endowment.
Political disputes have centered on whether professors can testify in lawsuits against DeSantis, limits on how professors can speak in classrooms about racism in America, surveys of professors and students about their political beliefs, faculty tenure reviews, and whether UF — which has had more COVID-19 cases than any other university in the United States — should have required vaccinations or masks in classrooms (this did not never been the case).
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. The journalist can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.
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