Nebraska U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse is the University of Florida’s likely next president after the search committee announced on Thursday that it was unanimously recommending him as the sole finalist.
The committee touted his experience in higher education — a historian by training, he was formerly the president of Midland University in Nebraska, taught at the University of Texas and has repeatedly discussed his vision for reforming American higher education. But his political experience will undoubtedly be useful in this role leading UF, as well.
University presidents are key players in state politics — the university governing body typically includes ex-politicos and campaign donors, for example — and it’s not uncommon to see university presidents walking the halls of Tallahassee during the all-important state budgeting season.
Sasse would assume the role at a particularly political time for Florida’s flagship university, a period in which the school’s independence from Gov. Ron DeSantis has been repeatedly called into question. Last year, professors sued the University of Florida after the school barred them from testifying as experts in lawsuits against the state. A faculty report then alleged that fear of upsetting Florida officials is pervasive within the university, to the point that race-related references were removed from course materials and researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data. A subsequent university investigation found the latter allegations about COVID-19 research had “no merit.”
Earlier this year, a faculty committee report found that State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo’s hiring by the university was fast-tracked, violating the school’s own hiring procedures.
It’s not clear if Sasse, a Republican, has any past ties to the state of Florida or its politicians. Like DeSantis, he is an alumnus of Harvard and Yale, the latter of which the two men attended at similar times. DeSantis earned his bachelor’s degree in 2001, while Sasse earned a Ph.D. in 2004.
If Sasse is confirmed as the university’s new president, he will be leaving the U.S. Senate just two years into his second six-year term. He was recently viewed as having aspirations for higher office, including rumors of a possible 2024 presidential run, according to an Associated Press article from last year.
Here is an overview of Sasse’s public comments, writings and statements on various political and policy issues:
Sasse has said American higher education is in need of a dramatic overhaul to meet the needs of the modern workforce and better serve students.
“American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale,” begins an essay he published in The Atlantic in May. “We must build a university network that enhances social mobility, instead of reinforcing privilege. We need higher education to transform more lives by offering more accountability, more experimentation, more institutional diversity, more intellectual curiosity, more adaptive learning, and more degrees and certifications.”
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In contrast to DeSantis, who in speeches has often compared some more theoretical degrees to “zombie studies” in their usefulness, Sasse writes that “the liberal arts inarguably make this world a better place. More students should be intellectually curious about history, literature, and ethics.”
But Sasse says that technical training and trade schools are also highly important, and when it comes to learning opportunities, more is better.
He supports breaking the mold that requires a certain number of credit hours earned over a certain period to turn into a degree for any and all subjects. In today’s world of ever-changing technology, few people will end up sticking with one career — instead, schools need to equip students to be lifelong learners, he argues, who know what type of learning model works best for them.
Sasse has said that government’s role in crafting this education revolution should be minimal.
“We need the state’s role to be chiefly around funding, but not around monopolistic administration and management of our institutions,” he told the Deseret News in a lengthy article on his education views. Good schools will spark students’ curiosity, he added. “Once somebody’s got a question, once that motor’s running ... they’re going to figure out how to learn.”
Student loan forgiveness
Sasse was opposed to President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive student loans, arguing in The Atlantic essay that the move “subsidize(s) failure” of the education system rather than reforming it.
“Massive forgiveness of student debt would most help upper-class Americans who are going to be just fine without a bailout,” he wrote. “It’s a regressive mistake.”
Donald Trump and partisanship
When he first was elected to the Senate, Sasse immediately made a splash by decrying the political grandstanding and short-sightedness of both parties in his first floor speech.
“The people despise us all,” he said.
He’s continued to go against the grain since, including being a frequent and outspoken Donald Trump critic. Sasse was one of the few Republican senators who voted during the 2021 impeachment trial to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection.
“If we allow tribalism to repeatedly blind us against defending our institutions, we will lose them,” he said in a lengthy statement on his vote in February 2021. He also stated that Trump’s “lies” about the election being stolen brought the country “dangerously close to a bloody constitutional crisis. ...This institution needs to respect itself enough to tell the executive that some lines cannot be crossed.”
Around the same time, after learning local GOP committee members were moving to censure him, he released a plainspoken video in which he ripped “rage addicts” for being out of touch with most Nebraska conservatives and buying into “the weird worship of one dude.”
Trump, for his part, gave Sasse a surprise endorsement for his 2020 reelection, which came after Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz convinced him not to back a challenger, according to an excerpt from Maggie Haberman’s book on the former president.
“Like a schmuck, I went along with it,” Trump said.
While Sasse said he supports COVID vaccines, he opposed Biden’s mandate requiring vaccines for all federal employees.
“This mandate is an end run around the Constitution,” he said in a 2021 statement. “The American people never elected anyone at OSHA, and no statute gives OSHA unlimited power. The Biden Administration’s rule isn’t just unconstitutional slop — it’s also ineffective public health policy. Sloppy federal mandates are having the net effect of making a bunch of Americans more vaccine-hesitant. In my view these vaccines are incredibly lifesaving, but the Administration has done an absolutely terrible job of persuading people of this reality.”