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Five challenges facing UF President Ben Sasse | Editorial
He’s an outsider with no experience running a university the size of UF.
U.S. Sen Ben Sasse of Nebraska talks during a University of Florida Faculty Senate Open Forum at the President’s Ballroom at Emerson Alumni Hall at the University of Florida on Oct. 10.
U.S. Sen Ben Sasse of Nebraska talks during a University of Florida Faculty Senate Open Forum at the President’s Ballroom at Emerson Alumni Hall at the University of Florida on Oct. 10. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 2, 2022

Dear President Sasse,

Welcome to the University of Florida! You now officially have the job of running the state’s flagship university. We expect big things.

We were disappointed with the opaque process that led to your hiring, but you were smart to call UF “the most interesting university in America” and that you wanted to make it “dynamic, bold and future-oriented.” We would have loved to hear more about your plans before you got the job. But as you know, the search was so secretive that the public has little idea what you told the search committee about your plans, or what the committee members told you.

As an outsider to Florida you will have to get used to our politics. As a U.S. senator, you surely understand power, how it’s used and abused. But if you do nothing else in the coming days and weeks, please brush up on the people who run our beloved state and the many ways they like to mess with higher education. Buckle up. This won’t be like your stint heading up Midland Lutheran University, a private school about one-twentieth the size of UF. It can get ugly, even for a Republican.

If we may be so bold, here are five of the top challenges you face coming out of the gate:

Gaining the trust of students and faculty, many of whom are not happy with your selection. Students object to your past remarks opposing same-sex marriage. The Faculty Senate recently gave the selection process a vote of no-confidence, and many professors worry that you won’t defend UF from political assaults on tenure and academic freedom. Is it fair to expect you to undo years of distrust? Probably not. Should you try anyway? Absolutely. Students and faculty can be a pain in your butt, but they are your core constituencies, after all.

Figuring out how to deal with a governor who has presidential ambitions and no problem using higher education as a punching bag. This assumes, of course, that Ron DeSantis is reelected as governor. How will you protect UF when one of the people threatening its freedom and independence controls the Legislature, which controls UF’s purse strings? Maybe here’s where your conservative record could be of assistance.

Learning how to maneuver in Tallahassee. This is related to the previous challenge, but goes beyond the governor. Lots of political insiders have become presidents of Florida universities — John Thrasher, T.K. Wetherell and Betty Castor are successful examples. But they were all insiders, as in, they came from inside Florida. They knew the political landscape, the levers to pull and the lightning rods to avoid. You are a politician from Nebraska. What are you going to do to build coalitions? How will you perform the first time you draw the ire of powerful Republicans in the state capital? If it comes down to it, do you have the fortitude to defy arguably the most powerful governor in Florida’s modern history?

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Maintaining at least the current level of diversity on campus, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court bans the use of race-conscious admission programs, as many expect. UF has never had a good record in this area. African-Americans, for example, made up barely 6% of its students last year, in a state in which 16% of the population identify as Black. You should commit to improving that number, which will require considerably more attention and resources. And it’s not just about race. Male students made up less than 44 percent of enrollment last year, and the percentage has been going down for years. That’s a troubling statistic at Florida’s top university.

Helping students deal with the ever-rising costs of earning a diploma, even with UF’s comparatively inexpensive price of tuition. Some of this is out of your hands; tuition policy is largely set at the state level. But UF has an endowment of more than $2 billion, and like almost all schools, spends only a tiny percentage each year. Princeton University recently announced it would use some of its much larger endowment to provide free tuition for families making less than $100,000 annually. That may be too generous for UF, but how about housing and food allowances for deserving students or a reduction in the many fees students must pay? It’s something to consider in these difficult times.

You are likely already feeling the weight on this new job, the way that the residents of the third-largest state in the nation want UF to flourish, demand that it continues to rise, insist that it compete with the country’s other top public universities. There’s no hiding from the scrutiny. The state cares too much about UF — and its other public universities. All eyes are upon you. We wish you luck . Now, please get to work.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.