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University of Florida’s finalist for president is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse

The nationally known lawmaker called UF “the most interesting university in the country.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was announced Thursday as the lone finalist to head the University of Florida.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was announced Thursday as the lone finalist to head the University of Florida. [ AL DRAGO | AP ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 6

In a highly anticipated announcement following a year of tumult on campus, the University of Florida said Thursday it has zeroed in on a national political figure to be its next president: Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Sasse, 50, emerged as the sole finalist in a search that took place under a new Florida law that keeps the key early stages of a public university’s presidential selection process out of the public eye. But UF officials sought to allay any concerns, calling their process “exhaustive.”

Related: Ben Sasse could be UF’s new president. Here are some of his views

Members of the school’s presidential search committee reached out to more than 700 leaders nationwide, narrowing the field to what they called “a dozen highly qualified diverse candidates,” including nine who were sitting presidents at major research universities. The university declined to name anyone in that group, citing the new law.

Sasse, who is two years into his second Senate term, was the search committee’s first choice by unanimous vote. He has five academic degrees and was president of a small Lutheran university in Nebraska before becoming a senator. He is sometimes mentioned as a future candidate for U.S. president and has faced backlash from his party for rebuking former President Donald Trump. He was one of seven Republican senators who voted in February 2021 to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection.

Sasse is scheduled to visit the Gainesville campus on Monday to meet with students, faculty and community members, who are invited to submit questions in advance and feedback afterwards. He will return Nov. 1 to be interviewed by the university’s board of trustees.

If approved by the trustees and later by the state Board of Governors, Sasse would become UF’s 13th president, replacing Kent Fuchs, who announced in January he will step down to take a faculty position after a successor is chosen.

Sasse’s selection would mark a departure from recent UF presidents, who have mostly come from the administrative ranks of top U.S. universities. Though his academic credentials are significant, his presidency would be part of a growing trend toward choosing politicians for the role.

Sasse earned a Ph.D. from Yale University, where he later taught. He also was a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin and served as president of Midland University in Nebraska for five years, where he is credited with transforming the institution and boosting enrollment. Midland is on the opposite end of the higher education spectrum from the University of Florida, with about 1,500 students compared to more than 50,000 at UF.

Sasse recently published an essay in The Atlantic about his thoughts on fixing American higher education and the student debt crisis.

Rahul Patel, a member of UF’s board of trustees who chaired the search committee, said in an interview that the process was robust. The committee conducted several listening sessions where Sasse’s name emerged. Patel said they reached out to hundreds of potential candidates, and he personally met with more than 35 before the committee narrowed its focus to a dozen.

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“The feedback was, for us to take the next step to truly becoming one of the most important universities in the country, we will need a visionary, an innovator and big thinker who would differentiate us from others — a leader who is transformational,” Patel said. “The committee unanimously felt Ben Sasse is a transformational leader.”

Laura Rosenbury, dean of the college of law, also served on the search committee and on President Fuchs’ panel last year to investigate the university’s conflict of interest policy after professors in her college were told they could not participate in legal cases against the state.

Rosenbury said she believed Sasse would be a staunch defender of academic freedom.

“What made Ben stand out was his focus on how higher education must transform to keep pace with the changing nature of work and the changing nature of technology and society as a whole,” she said.

Rosenbury said she thinks the new law that makes applicants confidential led to a stronger pool of candidates, and one that was diverse.

Patel said none of the dozen candidates they spoke to wished to be publicly identified unless they were the only finalist moving forward in the process.

In an interview Thursday, Sasse said he’s often contacted by search firms to serve as an informal adviser as a former university president and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee focused on U.S. competitiveness. He said he routinely turns down opportunities to be considered as a candidate, but was approached several times about applying for the UF job.

“Along the way, I came to see the University of Florida as the most interesting university in the country,” he said. “It’s the most important institution in the state with the most dynamic economy in the union.”

Sasse has written about changes in the workforce that will likely lead to people switching jobs and careers multiple times within a lifetime. He said his vision for higher education involves training people to be lifelong learners and more nimble.

“I think we need a lot more dynamic and interesting institutions serving 15- to 35-year-olds,” he said. “Higher ed institutions can no longer pretend that most people are going to be one and done.”

Sasse said he saw a “cornucopia of opportunities” at a university that houses one of the most powerful supercomputers, an expanding reach across the state with new acquisitions and a large health care system.

Though his name has been floated as a potential GOP presidential candidate, Sasse said he welcomes the opportunity to step away from the political arena and that he’s never harbored aspirations for a life in politics.

“I’m excited, frankly, about the opportunity to step away from politics and onto a team of big-cause, low-ego people who want to build stuff and serve students and plan for the future,” he said. “I just think that Gator Nation is going to have a massive global impact.”

Sasse also calls himself “an academic freedom and free speech guy,” and said he learned in greater detail over recent weeks about the tensions on campus over the past year.

“It is incredibly important that speech and dissent and debate flourish at an institution of higher learning,” he said. “One of the reasons you seek higher education is to encounter ideas you didn’t already know and those ideas can’t be centrally regulated. The dynamism of debate is what produces discovery.”

Jeremy Redfern, deputy press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, said the governor approved of the pick. “As a successful former university president, national leader, and deep thinker on education policy, Ben Sasse has the qualifications and would be a good candidate,” he said.

Paul Ortiz, chairperson of the UF faculty senate, said he was heartened to hear of Sasse’s support of free speech, but that he’ll need to prove himself to the campus.

“We don’t know him because the search lacked transparency,” Ortiz said.

He said he appreciated Fuchs’ willingness to listen when he arrived at UF in 2015, and that faculty are willing to consider a less open search as water under the bridge in hopes that Sasse will, too.

“Nationally, it’s seen as a purely political appointment,” Ortiz said. “Be that as it may, Monday morning is midterms. To my students, it does not matter at all. ... We’re going to continue to do our job and it’s going to be up to Sen. Sasse to adjust to our culture of excellence. He has a learning experience in front of him.”

Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

The process ahead

The University of Florida announced a timetable for considering U.S. Sen Ben Sasse as its new president.

Monday, Oct. 10: Sasse will visit the UF campus in Gainesville to meet with students, faculty and community members. The public can submit questions ahead of the sessions by visiting presidentsearch.ufl.edu/ask-a-question/

After that: People can share feedback at presidentsearch.ufl.edu/. The feedback will be reviewed by the university’s board of trustees.

Tuesday, Nov. 1: The trustees will interview Sasse in Emerson Hall on campus. The session will be livestreamed at presidentsearch.ufl.edu/.

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