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On campus with UF President Ben Sasse as he seeks a ‘north star’ beyond rankings

Ideas abound, but some faculty are worried, as the University of Florida’s new leader publicly ponders the future.
 
Erica McCray, left, an associate dean in the College of Education, meets University of Florida President Ben Sasse moments before Sasse shared his strategic vision for UF during a meeting with faculty on Aug. 25 in Gainesville.
Erica McCray, left, an associate dean in the College of Education, meets University of Florida President Ben Sasse moments before Sasse shared his strategic vision for UF during a meeting with faculty on Aug. 25 in Gainesville. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 21, 2023|Updated Sept. 21, 2023

GAINESVILLE — A few minutes remained before Ben Sasse’s presentation to a roomful of faculty, so the University of Florida’s first-year president placed his blazer on a chair, rolled up his sleeves and began working the room.

He shook hands, introducing himself as “Ben.” It was late August, six months into his tenure, so he was still meeting people on campus for the first time.

The 51-year-old former U.S. senator began his address a short time later, telling the College of Education faculty how he had lugged 11 mini refrigerators to students’ dorm rooms as they moved in for the fall semester.

He said he had spent his first three months at UF just listening — “exclusively receive posture,” he called it — and shared why he found that uncomfortable: “Because people are like, ‘What, does this guy not have any ideas?’”

About 80 such conversations took place “inside institution,” Sasse said, and a like number outside Gainesville.

Now, he told the audience, he’s “in a dialogical place of wanting to have conversations back and forth” about the school’s future. It was time once again to talk about the university’s strategic plan, a common exercise that invites brainstorming. But as Sasse has unspooled his vision for UF in recent weeks, reaction has been mixed.

In his view, UF needs a new direction after several consecutive years ranked among the nation’s top public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The school must pivot, he said, to “a north star that helps organize our shared efforts and spend the last strategic dollar well.”

Getting even higher in the rankings would be nice, Sasse said, but “that’s not going to get us out of bed in the morning.”

He’s suggested that many faculty and departments aren’t pulling their weight. He wants UF to build a stronger presence across the state and nation, with less focus on the Gainesville campus.

He said the university needs to make quicker decisions, figure out what it does best and focus on that. But he also said it should set a goal of having 10 programs ranked in the top 10 nationally over the next decade.

Sasse’s talk was one of his last stops as he discusses the strategic plan with deans and faculty at UF’s 16 colleges. Some have come away puzzled by his message.

Was he looking to fire people? Cut departments?

Meera Sitharam
Meera Sitharam [ University of Florida ]

His presentations can be fast-paced, wide-ranging, laden with corporate lingo and sometimes hard to follow. Rumors started circulating.

Meera Sitharam, a math professor and president of UF’s faculty union, said she heard largely negative comments about the presentations from faculty in each college.

“Everybody was dismayed,” she said. “Every report is, ‘What is this guy trying to do?’”

“Sobriety data”

Sasse calls himself “a moderate about rankings,” sounding at odds with UF’s proud promotion of its top 5 status over the last two years — before U.S. News dropped it to No. 6 this past week. But he doesn’t mean it to be controversial, he told his College of Education audience.

He said he was “super impressed and respectful of all that’s happened” at UF to achieve such accolades, which include the No. 1 spot in The Wall Street Journal’s ranking of public universities this month.

“And yet,” Sasse added, “I also think there are things in life that are measured and there are things in life that we might regard as important, and those are not exactly concentric overlapping circles.”

He then presented faculty with what he called “sobriety data,” using charts with X and Y axes to explain UF’s strengths and weaknesses.

He said he had advocated tirelessly for tenure, but had heard that some faculty were in “quiet retire” mode, meaning they were not frequently publishing research.

The 47 most “productive” faculty members, he said, came from the Scripps Florida research lab in Jupiter, which became part of UF Health a year ago. Some faculty have pushed back, arguing that not every discipline is as research-oriented as Scripps, which focuses on biomedical advances.

University of Florida faculty attend a meeting with UF President Ben Sasse where he shared his strategic vision for UF on Friday, Aug 25, 2023, at the College of Education's Norman Hall at the UF campus in Gainesville.
University of Florida faculty attend a meeting with UF President Ben Sasse where he shared his strategic vision for UF on Friday, Aug 25, 2023, at the College of Education's Norman Hall at the UF campus in Gainesville. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Sasse said it was clear from the start that he “would be defending tenure against some folks in Tallahassee who wanted to attack it,” but added: “Defending tenure is not defending the lack of accountability about what investments the public is making.”

His points, presented on slides, were guided by a “data-driven analysis” from McKinsey & Company, where Sasse has said he once worked as a consultant.

As first reported by The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, the university is paying McKinsey $4.7 million for its work. UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said the analysis “provides a foundation to understand UF’s core strengths and the big opportunities.” The company has “helped stand up a best-in-class process for the new strategic plan,” he said.

For his College of Education audience, Sasse skipped over a piece of sobriety data that had generated concern in previous presentations. He had said that UF has 200 academic departments and suggested that closer to 140 would be ideal. He mentioned a 46-person department where 13 faculty were not engaged in sponsored research.

The university later clarified in a news release that the president did not intend to eliminate any departments.

Beyond Gainesville

Sasse said the UF of the future would need to move faster with decision-making, an impulse he previewed during his second day on the job.

On Feb. 7, he joined UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini to announce that the university was exploring a graduate campus in Jacksonville that focused on medicine, business and engineering. But they may have moved too fast. The announcement surprised some members of the Board of Governors, the 17-person panel that oversees the state’s 12 public universities. They later reminded Hosseini that UF needed to follow procedures.

Still, Sasse remains serious about pressing ahead with the Jacksonville proposal. He told faculty that UF will need to raise “a few hundred million” from state and local government, along with corporate donations in the next 12 to 18 months, before “those dollars go away.”

University of Florida President Ben Sasse shares his strategic vision for UF during a meeting with faculty on Aug. 25 in Gainesville.
University of Florida President Ben Sasse shares his strategic vision for UF during a meeting with faculty on Aug. 25 in Gainesville. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“The one place where I’m going to be really dogmatic is we’re not going to waste all this money by not making decisions,” he told faculty. “We’re going to figure out how we reform our processes to make decisions on a more rapid timeline.”

The Jacksonville initiative, he said, would be “a doodle pad to think about what does it look like to build new programs much faster,” and pave a path for expansion into South Florida.

“Miami is the ninth-most important economic engine in the United States,” Sasse told faculty members. “So there’s a pretty good opportunity there.”

Expanding UF’s presence across the state would open new “front doors” to the university, he said.

“The vast majority of the money in the world is not in Gainesville, so we should have front-line fundraisers that don’t live here,” Sasse said. “Some will live here, but very few. They’ll live in Atlanta, New York, Miami, San Francisco, etc. We need to be colocated with the people we’re trying to sell.”

Defining “the thing”

As for “the thing” that would set UF apart, with Gator Nation “singing out of the same hymn book,” Sasse floated a partially formed idea. He proposed pairing artificial intelligence with the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which receives state and federal funding and already has a presence in each of Florida’s 67 counties.

According to a UF news release, other areas where the university might distinguish itself include “space and engineering, followed by business, healthy aging, sports in the arena and in the classroom, real estate, psychology, pediatrics, education/innovation in teaching and learning, allied health/health specialty occupations, public health, and sustainability and conservation.”

Sasse spoke about his ideas for changing the campus culture, allowing students to live in more than one ZIP code during their college years and giving them the ability to leave early to take jobs. While some classes are best delivered in person, others are better as virtual courses, he suggested, so that discussions aren’t dominated by “the five nerds who raise their hand to answer every question.”

In a separate presentation to the College of Dentistry, Sasse said raising tuition for some students was another possibility. The average student receiving Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship receives more money than the cost of tuition, he said.

As a start, he’s advocating for price controls in Tallahassee to be lifted for graduate and professional programs as well as for out-of-state students.

“I think it makes no sense for the median Florida taxpayer to be subsidizing rich people in Atlanta,” Sasse said, referring to out-of-state families who send students to UF. “And right now we do a lot of that. I also would love to have a longer conversation about tuition in general.”

Related: It’s Ben Sasse’s first day as UF president. Here’s what he’s saying.

The new president left about 15 minutes at each session for questions, drawing surprised laughs when he tossed a mic across the room to a clinical assistant professor in the College of Education.

Chris Curran, another faculty member in the college, said he saw Sasse’s presentation as an overview of the university’s past successes and a launch toward looking for new opportunities. He said it left him excited.

Sitharam, the faculty union president, said she planned to ask to meet with Sasse, who invited all with feedback to email him at president@ufl.edu.

In an email to union members about Sasse’s presentations, Sitharam criticized what she saw as a broadside against faculty members.

In sharing his ideas for the future, UF President Ben Sasse is telling faculty and deans that slow decision-making will cost the university money. “We’re going to figure out how we reform our processes to make decisions on a more rapid timeline,” he said during a presentation to members of the College of Education on Aug. 25 in Gainesville.
In sharing his ideas for the future, UF President Ben Sasse is telling faculty and deans that slow decision-making will cost the university money. “We’re going to figure out how we reform our processes to make decisions on a more rapid timeline,” he said during a presentation to members of the College of Education on Aug. 25 in Gainesville. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Instead of considering why some faculty may have lost their commitment to UF, and wondering how as a leader he could work with those faculty to increase their job satisfaction and thereby their productivity, President Sasse seems more inclined to squeeze the UF workforce to make his mark, using tired and debunked ‘accountability’ metrics and management consultant strategies,” she wrote.

Her words included a reference to a succession of political flareups over the last two years at UF and across Florida’s higher education system that have many faculty considering leaving the state. After a 2021 controversy that raised questions about academic freedom on campus, Florida lawmakers passed legislation over the next two years that restricted classroom discussions on race, targeted subjects like gender studies and gutted diversity programs.

Sasse said in a brief interview between campus presentations that he was not concerned about losing faculty due to politics, a group he described as outliers. Instead, he said, he was more concerned about losing them over pay, job location and other reasons.

Danaya Wright, a law professor and president of the faculty senate, said Sasse had correctly identified headwinds the university faced, but she worried about the way they had been communicated. She feared the information was not accurately received by faculty.

“Faculty think in very personal and specific terms,” Wright said. “They hear that they’re cutting departments, disappearing departments, terminating faculty and, you know, my department is going to be the one that goes, right?”

Sasse, for now, appears to have his sights on the bigger picture.

“I think 100 years from now, when you look back at our moment, people are not going to talk about politics,” he said. “They’re going to talk about the fact that we were living through the technological revolution that created an economic revolution.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.