The University of Florida’s board of trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to name U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse as the flagship school’s 13th president after weeks of growing criticism over his views on LGBTQ issues and a national search conducted largely in secret.
Sasse, 50, a Nebraska Republican whose name emerged in early October as the sole finalist for the job, became the subject of protests and calls for action.
The trustees’ vote followed an impassioned opening statement by Sasse, who emphasized the university’s role in preparing students for a work world altered by “scary disruption” but one that presented “magnificent opportunity” for UF. Students graduating in May, he said, will change jobs or industries at least three times over the next decade, and the university needs to be better prepared to retrain people as they “boomerang back through our institution.”
Before that, Sasse faced 40 minutes of scathing public comment, with 10 speakers voicing their concerns over political influence on the university, the senator’s track record on LGBTQ issues and the lack of public involvement in the presidential search. Some pleaded for the board to reconsider.
“Normal universities don’t do this,” said Bryn Taylor, a UF doctoral student. “Once again political meddling has made UF the laughing stock of the academic community.”
Tara Ezzell, a graduate of UF’s College of Medicine and a Gainesville doctor, voiced her excitement for the choice, saying she had read Sasse’s book, “Them: Why we hate each other — and how to heal.” She said the senator offered a chance to “launch UF to even greater heights.”
Trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini said the board was tasked with finding “a once in a generation leader.”
An earlier statement by the university’s search committee called the UF president’s job “one of the most influential and impactful positions in all of public higher education and in the State of Florida.”
Outside Emerson Alumni Hall, where Sasse was interviewed by trustees, a swarm of protesters gathered outside a heavily barricaded space. The protests would continue if Sasse was confirmed, they said.
In the days leading up to the vote, the student senate took a vote of no confidence in both the search committee and the student body president for her role in selecting him as the finalist. The faculty senate took a vote of no confidence in the process, and the faculty union called on the faculty senate chairperson to vote against Sasse.
Meanwhile, concerns about his public stance as a Nebraska politician on same-sex marriage and his lack of experience at a major research university grew louder.
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The board voted 13-0 to name Sasse after asking a range of questions: How would UF change with him in charge? What would he do to gain the trust of confidence of faculty and students who have criticized him? Would he be able to step back from politics? How would he address concerns of the LGBTQ community? What were his thoughts on academic freedom?
Sasse, who has been critical of former President Donald Trump, acknowledged his politics and the opposition he’s faced, but said he was looking forward “to a period of political celibacy.”
As UF president, he said, he would be consumed with being a “Gator superfan,” a dad and getting to know the details of a sprawling university. He said he didn’t see himself having the “bandwidth” for any partisan political activity.
Regarding speculation that his selection as finalist was engineered by Florida’s Republican leaders, Sasse said he has had no conversations with Gov. Ron DeSantis since DeSantis was a congressman. He said he was not shepherded through the process by any political figures, but rather by people on the search committee.
He said he hadn’t focused on UF until he was approached by Rahul Patel, the search committee chairperson, who recruited him using “a laundry list” of the university’s attributes.
He said he had two conversations with outgoing president Kent Fuchs about LGBTQ initiatives, and felt their records would be “indistinguishable” in that area. Fuchs, who would be an advisor to Sasse, has attended PRIDE welcoming events and adopted an initiative for gender-neutral messaging across the university.
”Everybody is created with infinite worth,” Sasse said, repeating words he used during his campus appearance on Oct. 10. He said the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage, which he had previously called “disappointing,” was law of the land and not something that would change.
Instead, he said, he wanted to focus on “all the stuff we have to do together.”
Sasse added: ”I want every student to have better in-classroom experiences, better out-of-classroom experiences, better beyond-UF experiences,” he said. “Humans have to get good at talking and not just reducing people to just some single variable.”
Sasse also reiterated his support for academic freedom and tenure at UF, and spoke of his ideas to grow UF’s new campuses in Jupiter. He spoke of wanting to grow its health sector across the state and artificial intelligence initiatives. He spoke of wanting to partner with more industries.
“We should be screaming we’re open for business,” he said.
He laid out a 12 to 18 month transition period, joking that his wife told him if he took the job he would have to get a tattoo that said “pacing.”
“There’s just so much to do,” he said.
Student body president Lauren LeMasters, who serves as a trustee, thanked Sasse for his willingness to listen to how students’ feel but echoed others, saying he would need to build trust.
“It’s up to you to live up to that,” she said.
Before the trustees’ questioning, Hosseini and Patel defended allegations that the search process was flawed.
They said search committee members contacted hundreds of “prospects,” with Patel speaking to 35 and some members of the committee spoke to 12. Each prospect told the committee they did not wish to advance in the process unless they were the sole finalist, they said.
Hosseini said the consultant the university hired to help with the search said the effort would be adversely impacted if they released more than one finalist. He listed other top public universities who concluded their most recent search with only one finalist.
After their vote, the trustees adopted a study that recommended Sasse’s salary should not exceed $1.6 million. The study said compensation for university presidents ranged from a little over $1 million at the 25th percentile to $2.5 million at the 90th percentile. Fuchs’ earns $1.4 million.
The vote brought a standing ovation from those in the Emerson Hall ballroom as some protesters walked out cursing the board and the process. Others approached Fuchs, who fielded to their complaints.
Giancarlo Rodriguez, a junior, said he told the outgoing president he was disappointed to hear of his support for Sasse despite the senator’s stance on LGBTQ issues, but thanked Fuchs for listening.
Sasse’s selection must be approved by the state Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet in Tampa on Nov. 9 and 10.
If confirmed, Sasse, who is two years into his second term, is expected to resign from the Senate in December before joining UF in early 2023.
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.
The story so far
UF president Kent Fuchs announces he will step down soon (Jan. 5, 2022)
University of Florida to begin search for new president in March (Jan. 31, 2022)
UF selects presidential search firm used by USF, FSU (March 18, 2022)