GAINESVILLE — Students and faculty at the University of Florida gave U.S. Sen Ben Sasse a raucous welcome to campus Monday, greeting the Nebraska Republican with biting questions and a loud protest as he sought to introduce himself as the school’s likely next president.
Introduced last week as the only finalist for the job, the 50-year-old Sasse faced opposition to his stances against same-sex marriage, his past efforts to do away with tenure and a decision by UF leaders to keep much of the selection process secret.
During the second of three public forums, about 200 student protesters crowded into the lobby of Emerson Alumni Hall and refused to leave, waving signs and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho. Ben Sasse has got to go.” Their shouts could be heard inside the President’s Ballroom, where Sasse was addressing students after an earlier forum with faculty.
Sasse paused a few times and smiled as the chants grew louder, then ended the student session about 15 minutes early. The protesters then flowed into the ballroom ahead of the next session with university employees.
To avoid the noisy scene, the university held the employee session online instead.
The protesters made five demands while occupying the ballroom for about an hour. They wanted Sasse to decline the president’s job and the UF board of trustees to release the names — thus far withheld — of all 12 people they had interviewed for the post. They also demanded more transparency during the selection process and the repeal of a new Florida law that keeps presidential searches at state colleges and universities largely out of public view.
In addition, they wanted UF to commit to picking a person who demonstrated “consistent advocacy and respect for people of all sexual orientations, genders and races.”
The large group stayed until the employee session with Sasse ended shortly after 4 p.m. Some of them said they planned to return on Nov. 1, when Sasse is scheduled to be interviewed by the board of trustees.
Sasse’s day started on a lighter note, having listened to Tom Petty songs during his pre-dawn workout in Gainesville. He said during the faculty session that the melodies felt more special in the musician’s hometown.
But he quickly faced a tense line of questioning as the session began.
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Faculty members quizzed him about his positions regarding tenure, which he ended during a five-year period as president of tiny Midland University in eastern Nebraska before he was elected to the Senate.
Sasse drew distinctions between Midland and UF, saying tenure was a necessity for recruitment at a large research university. He said he would be a “zealous defender of tenure” in Florida and would take it upon himself to explain its merits to people who might not understand in Tallahassee, a place he said he’s never been.
But the first question from both faculty and students was how Sasse would protect LGBTQ individuals, based on his previous statements opposing same-sex marriage.
Amanda Phalin, president of the faculty senate, said many UF faculty are “deeply concerned” about Sasse’s stance on that issue and read him the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
Sasse responded, saying his stances were a “subset” of who he was. ”I believe deeply in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every single person,” he said.
He added that the law is set and nothing is under consideration at UF that would call that into question.
”People vigorously wrestle about what the issues are in the classroom,” Sasse said, “but the community is a place for respect and inclusion for all Gators.”
He said he would meet with the LGBTQ advisory group on campus to learn more about what is needed to create a more inclusive community.
Lucca Carlson, a sophomore at the protest, said while he expected a conservative appointment he didn’t expect a politician currently in office “who had publicly made hateful statements.”
Sasse during questioning also sought to set aside what he said were other misconceptions about his positions.
He said he believes in climate change, unlike other members of his party, but feels innovation can provide the solutions, not the federal government.
He said Chinese or Chinese American scholars should not be fearful of his stances against the Chinese Communist party hiring spies within universities. And he said he didn’t have anything against people who majored in psychology or people named Jeremy, a reference to jokes he made during a high school commencement address he delivered via Zoom during the pandemic. Sasse admitted his attempts at humor that day had flopped.
Danaya Wright, a law professor who put together the faculty senate’s report investigating academic freedom at UF, said in an interview she was trying to keep an open mind about Sasse.
”I think being president of UF is a very difficult job,” she said. “Nobody is going to be perfect at every aspect of it. We’ll wait and see. Some faculty are very, very skeptical and concerned. And they have valid reasons to be. He’s going to have to prove himself.”
Sasse reaffirmed that he was a staunch defender of academic freedom, saying it is “essential to our research mission and essential to what happens in a dynamic classroom.”
He said he is still learning about a new Florida law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that limits discussion of race and gender issues in the classroom, but added that people should be able to talk about race and have debates about history.
”You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the original sin in America of racism,” he said during the session with faculty.
He had opened the session, saying he hadn’t sought out the UF job but was worried about the issue of creating more nimble learners. He said students who graduate now can’t expect to work in the same field throughout their careers, and he wants to be part of addressing that issue.
He spoke of time spent in Silicon Valley, where he came to understand the concept of disruption and the need for higher education to change structures that were relevant 20 and 30 years ago but not today.
Sasse also mentioned his family, suggesting the life of a college president was more attractive to him than the Senate job he has. “I didn’t want to be a dad that never shared family dinners with his kids on weeknights,” he said.
He said he’s the father of a sophomore and a freshman in college as well as an 11-year-old. They were “omni-schooled,” he said, going to public and private schools as well as home schooling and private tutors.
He said he hopes all learning, including at UF, includes more field experiences, more languages and more study abroad experiences.
Asked how he would adapt to the learning curve of leading a university as large and complex as UF, he said he would “listen, listen, listen and listen some more.”
He didn’t have a timeline, he said, but “if this goes the way I hope it will, I imagine I would start in the new year and there would be many, many months of listening.”
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.