Trustees approve U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., as the next University of Florida president
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse was approved as the next University of Florida president Tuesday after receiving praise from trustees but criticism from students.
The 13-member UF board of trustees unanimously approved hiring Sasse, R-Neb., for the job after interviewing him about his academic views and past political positions. Sasse outlined his vision for the job and higher education in general, focusing on its role in preparing students for major technological changes.
“I’m here because I believe that this is the most interesting institution in the state that has the most happening right now," Sasse said. "And it’s the best institution to lead our country through a time of unprecedented change.”
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The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, will take a final vote on Sasse's hiring on Nov. 10 in Tampa. If approved, he will succeed Kent Fuchs, who announced in January that he was stepping down as UF president and joining the engineering faculty.
While trustees interviewed Sasse at Emerson Alumni Hall, a protest was held outside, with demonstrators barred from entering the building under a newly enforced university regulation.
Some faculty members and students have criticized the search process and Sasse's conservative political positions, including a Faculty Senate no-confidence vote last week on the process.
A presidential search committee named Sasse last month as the only finalist for the position, under a new state law hid most of the process from the public.
“The process of picking the 13th president of the University of Florida has been rigged from the start,” said Rachel Hartnett, co-president of the UF Graduate Assistants United union.
Trustees approved annual compensation of up to $1.6 million for Sasse. The exact amount is to be negotiated by the board chair, with the aim of having the compensation package ready before the Board of Governors meeting.
Sasse received praise from trustees for his vision for UF and for having high integrity and passion for the job. Trustee Daniel O'Keefe said that UF was fortunate to have a senator with an academic background in the position.
“I think he has the potential to be a transformative leader,” O'Keefe said.
Sen. Ben Sasse brought questions from some UF students and faculty
Sasse was announced on Oct. 6 as the sole finalist for the UF presidency after a search process that was shrouded in secrecy due to Senate Bill 520.
The legislation, passed earlier this year, allowed UF to conduct a presidential search outside of Florida’s open meeting and public record requirements.
Some of the dozen people who spoke at Tuesday's meeting criticized the secretive process and Sasse's opposition to same-sex marriage as a senator. Alana O'Brien, a Ph.D. candidate, said Sasse "is not the right president for UF” and that his hiring will greatly affect enrollment.
“Do you think that a high school student would be enchanted by a president who called same-sex marriage a disappointment?" O'Brien said. "If I was a high school senior, I would think twice about coming here.”
During questioning by trustees, Sasse said he expected his record would be "fairly indistinguishable" from Fuchs in advancing LGBTQ rights and that he planned to meet with an LGBTQ faculty advisory group.
Faculty Senate chair Amanda Phalin, a member of the board of trustees, said that Sasse’s responses addressed her concerns.
“I would never support a decision that would harm our LGBTQ community or any underrepresented community," she said. "In fact, I think the opposite will be true."
One trustee asked Sasse about his previous remarks about China, questioning how he would create an environment where Chinese faculty feel comfortable. Sasse responded by stating that he is against the Chinese Communist Party, not Chinese Americans or Chinese international students.
"We want students from all over the globe to come to our university," he said.
The presidential search was conducted by a 15-member committee that was assisted by an outside consultant. Committee members said the group focused on a dozen candidates, including nine sitting presidents at major research universities, but that none of the candidates would agree to their names being publicly revealed unless they were the sole finalist.
“Candidates have made it crystal clear that they would not engage in a process unless they were the sole finalist," said Mori Hosseini, chair of the board of trustees. "The bottom line is that if we had a process that required more than one finalist, none of the top 12 would have moved past the initial conversation with us."
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Sasse pledges 'political celibacy'
Sasse, 50, is serving his second term in the Senate but is expected to resign by the end of the year. He was previously the president of Midland University, a 1,600-student private school in Nebraska.
His hiring comes as questions of political interference hung over UF since it was revealed last fall that faculty were barred from testifying in court against policies backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature.
Sasse said he had no discussions with DeSantis about the job. He said that he expected to follow the example of another former politician who became a university president, former Indiana governor turned Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, in not contributing to or campaigning for candidates.
"I would have no activity in partisan politics in any way as I arrived at the University of Florida," Sasse said. "I look forward to a period of political celibacy."
He said he would take the message to Tallahassee that UF deserved investment because it was a special place, but that doesn't mean it should be micromanaged.
"It's because of the independence of this place that the investment bears fruit," he said.
Trustees at several points discussed Sasse's views on UF's expansion to other parts of Florida, particularly at a new campus planned in West Palm Beach.
He said the campus would provide new opportunities in such efforts as educating mid-career workers for changing fields. He also expressed interest in working with technology companies to better prepare students for the workforce.
"We should be screaming we're open for business," he said. "I think we should figure out what does it take to become the most partner-friendly institution in the country and then start through the steps of executing against that."
Search process led to protests
Last week, the Faculty Senate approved a no-confidence vote on the search process, questioning the lack of transparency and faculty input. The measure followed similar resolutions passed by the United Faculty of Florida union and the UF Student Senate criticizing the choice of Sasse for the job.
Students protested Sasse's selection during question-and-answer sessions on Oct. 10 in which demonstrators rushed Emerson Alumni Hall, leading to one session being moved and Sasse being escorted outside and into a police car.
For Tuesday's meeting, Emerson was barricaded with metal fencing and police officers surrounded the entrances. About 30 students took part in a protest outside the building, chanting and yelling phrases such as, "Anti-woman, anti-gay, Ben Sasse go away."
UF history professor Paul Ortiz, president of the United Faculty of Florida union chapter, told the students he was grateful for them and that they had to show solidarity.
"Ben Sasse's only qualification to be president of the University of Florida, as far as I can tell, is that he's the sitting Republican senator of the state of Nebraska," Ortiz said.
Sasse said a diversity of opinion was a good thing, but questioned a focus on divisive issues at universities and elsewhere.
"The loudest folks among us tend to be focused heavily on partisan politics and culture-war issues, and yet those issues have almost nothing to do with most of the riddles that we need to navigate in our time," he said.
He said he would conduct a months-long period of listening sessions across the campus and state, as part of efforts to develop his vision for UF and earn the trust of faculty and students.
“There’s a ton of listening and learning that I need to do. There is a lot of learning I need to do about this place,” Sasse said.