After a contentious selection process this past fall, former U.S. Senator Ben Sasse began his new job as the University of Florida’s 13th president on Monday. In two letters to the UF community — a short one to students and a longer one to faculty and staff — he called on the campus for “big ideas.”
Here is what he wrote:
It’s great to be a Florida Gator! One of my big missions is making sure that UF prepares you to be leaders during a time of disruption and change. This is going to be exciting. We’re going to engage ideas, build trust and sharpen each other. My wife Melissa and I are excited to see you around campus – whether we’re having lunch at the Reitz Union or cheering on Gator student-athletes this spring.
P.S. – As I start my transition tutorials today and we kick off a strategic planning process soon, I wanted to forward you an email I sent to UF faculty and staff this morning.
Faculty and Staff,
It’s a great privilege to join Gator Nation this morning. The Sasse family is thrilled to start working alongside you on behalf of UF students, alumni, and Floridians more broadly.
The University of Florida is an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time. There’s never been a more fascinating moment to be alive. You’ve worked hard and reached impressive new heights, but no one I’ve met thus far is satisfied or complacent. Together, we have the privilege of tackling the biggest challenges in education, research, and human flourishing. I’m confident that this unique institution will lead the way.
The word “unprecedented” is overused, but consider this: More data (not to say knowledge or wisdom) has been produced in the last few years than in all of human history prior. This pace will only quicken in the coming decade, as society is remade with digital backbones, and as most economic activity across the globe will center for the first time on bits rather than atoms. The habits of learning and research – both basic and applied – will be fundamentally overhauled by AI and the broader information-saturated environment into which we’re entering.
During a time of such rapid change, we will need to ask anew first-principles questions about the purpose, duties, and opportunities in front of an institution like ours that has been blessed with so much. At UF, let us not duck the hardest questions about who we’re serving, and how we know if we’re being effective enough. It is proper also to acknowledge that top universities like ours are a continuation of a millennium-long inheritance of and search for knowledge. Therefore, let us wrestle with the high callings of both what we aim to conserve, and also what kind of transformative leadership we owe our students and state in this unprecedented moment.
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As we write the next chapter of UF’s story, the canvas before us is gigantic. How do you see our chief opportunities? What are the biggest challenges? What research problems can we tackle that most inspire you? What do you think are the greatest UF strengths we should build on? What are our blind spots?
Based on my conversations with many corners of this university over the last six months, I’ve been blown away by so many pockets of brilliance. I’ve also been formulating some opening thoughts on our top challenges but am eager to meet and hear from more of you. Among the Board of Trustees starter questions that I’ve been charged with building a process to answer are these:
- How do we ensure that UF graduates are prepared — both qualitatively and with quantitative competence — for a world with shorter-duration work than ever before? How will we make sure Gators are life-long learners? How will we build the nation’s best career services?
- How will we champion pluralism, curiosity, viewpoint diversity, open debate, and intellectual rigor for our students and faculty, such that our graduates will be prepared to live and work with people of many points of view?
- How will we harness the power of AI? What does it mean for research and for teaching? What seemingly settled disciplinary and departmental boundaries should be reconsidered?
- How will we radically expand our pool of external partners to provide opportunity for our students and faculty? As one example, how will we help make Florida the “Silicon Valley” for agriculture technology?
- How do we build on the innovative culture of UF Scripps? How can UF Scripps be a driver in solving some of the most vexing health challenges facing our state and nation?
- What is the ideal geographic footprint and who are the best partners for UF Health?
- How do we help Gator athletics win more while keeping our integrity at the forefront?
And here’s a big one: How do we ensure UF is an attractive home for more top-tier talent across the widest range of disciplines? How do we build the kind of mission-driven, respectful culture that better rewards the highest-performing teachers and researchers – both tenured and professional track? How do we best invest in human capital? Stated another way: What would it take for you to invite and convince the best and brightest folks you know to join us here? How can we help them and their families thrive?
To do big things, we’ll have to upgrade our performance in a number of dimensions: How do we become faster and nimbler to make UF a more compelling partner for the most interesting institutions across the globe? How do we determine the right locations for programs beyond area code 352, and when the right mode of educational delivery is fully in-person, hybrid, or remote? How do we better steward our taxpayer resources and more clearly explain our budget prioritization decisions? How do we develop a sustainable funding model for the next generation of Gators?
Some of these growth pains will be complicated, but in the long run, asking direct questions — about what’s working and what could work better, about what opportunities we’re overlooking and what successes we should more zealously trumpet — is not just necessary, but satisfying.
Maybe most important: What are the central questions I haven’t yet thought to ask?
I am officially starting my “transition tutorials” today — as the first stage of a soon-to-be-announced strategic planning process. Next week, I’ll begin hearing from each dean on how our 200 academic units rank the opportunities for upgrading both quality and quantity. We’re open to all big ideas, from all corners of a diverse and vibrant university. Please feel free to send me your big ideas at email@example.com. We’re a community, and to do this well, we need a wide range of perspectives and voices. We have an opportunity to build a shared vision – about what it means to be both a land-grant institution and the flagship of the most dynamic state in the union.
The recent successes here are exhilarating, and I am enthusiastic about working alongside you in the months and years to come as we transform lives by pursuing truth, beauty, and excellence, by discovering world-changing breakthroughs, and by passing on to our students a life-long love of learning.
The Ben Sasse 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)