US Sen. Ben Sasse positioned to become UF's next president

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The University of Florida has announced that U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, is the sole finalist to become the school's next president.

The UF Board of Trustees is expected to formally consider his candidacy at its Nov. 1 meeting.

Many people on campus and beyond are reacting to the news, which has implications not just in Gainesville but on the national political scene.

2:55 p.m. | Academic freedom concerns persist

The University of Florida’s announcement of a single finalist for university president has drawn criticism, but a key participant in the search defends the process.

UF had kept candidates for the position secret from the public under a new state law, before announcing Thursday afternoon that a search committee had named U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., as the only finalist for the job.

UF history professor Paul Ortiz said that when current President Kent Fuchs was hired, there was more transparency. Ortiz, who is also president of the UF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida union, said that Fuchs met with many members of the UF community and worked to build trust.

Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, speaks at an event held on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville in June 25.
Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, speaks at an event held on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville in June 25.

Ortiz said the optics of Sasse's selection are going to complicate his presidency because he is going to be seen as a "quasi-political" choice.

"If they had said, 'Hey we have three finalists, Ben Sasse is one of them' and he won that competition, we'd be having a different conversation right now," Ortiz said, “but because of the fact that they essentially say they reached out to about 700 people and come back with one person ... it creates a perception of unfairness and that's what Sen. Sasse is going to have to address.”

UF has been dogged with questions of political interference since it was revealed last fall that faculty were barred from testifying in court against policies backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature. UF also fast-tracked the hiring of COVID-19 skeptic Joseph Ladapo as a professor, paving the way for DeSantis to appoint him as Florida's surgeon general.

Rahul Patel, a UF trustee and chair of the UF Presidential Search Committee told The Sun there was no political influence when it came to the committee unanimously choosing Sasse as the sole finalist. Patel said when the committee held listening sessions with faculty, staff, alumni and students, they expressed the desire for someone who would take the university to new heights.

"We would need as our next leader a visionary, an innovator, a big thinker and someone who will differentiate us from others, a leader who is truly transformational. Ben Sasse is our transformational leader," Patel said.

Laura Rosenbury, dean of UF’s Levin College of Law and a search committee member, said in a prepared statement that Sasse “embodies academic freedom" due to his commitment to engaging with different people. Sasse told the Tampa Bay Times that he is “an academic freedom and free speech guy” and that it was “incredibly important that speech and dissent and debate flourish at an institution of higher learning.”

Ortiz said UF has “been under siege in terms of academic freedom” and faculty members “have made it clear we're not retreating one inch" no matter who is the next president.

“We're going to defend the integrity of the University of Florida regardless of who's on the board of trustees, who's the president and who's the governor," he said.

2:45 p.m. | Nate Monroe column

"Sasse's coronation would be the crowning achievement of the DeSantis-led effort to defile the University of Florida," Florida Times-Union metro columnist Nate Monroe writes. Read his full column here.

2:40 p.m. | Advice from John Thrasher

John Thrasher's advice for Ben Sasse? “Leave the politics on the front steps,” Thrasher told the USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida. “Deal with what’s in the best interest of the university and the students.” Read John Kennedy's full story here. 

12:15 p.m. | Sasse on student loan forgiveness

In August, Sasse, a former college president, spoke out against President Joe Biden's plan to forgive $10,000 in student loans.

He said it would force blue-collar workers to subsidize white-collar graduate students and is a "regressive" move.

"Instead of demanding accountability from an underperforming higher education sector that pushes so many young Americans into massive debt, the Administration’s unilateral plan baptizes a broken system," he said. "This deeply regressive action — which fails even to acknowledge that most debt is held by folks with graduate degrees — will do nothing to jumpstart the reform higher education desperately needs."

Sasse, who also says he is an advocate for higher education reform, for said the loan forgiveness plan will cost upwards of $980 billion over 10 years and will result in the bulk of relief going to the top 60% of earners.

11:30 a.m. | Some UF students disappointed

Some University of Florida students are questioning the choice of Ben Sasse as sole finalist to be the next UF president.

Bryn Taylor, co-president of the Graduate Assistants United union, said UF promised students and faculty there would be a transparent process and that hasn’t been the case.

“Nobody understands this choice at all. It is an extremely political pick at a time when UF is making extremely political rules,” Taylor said. "I don’t understand why they would do something like this. His track record in office is awful. He is vehemently anti-abortion, ant-LGBTQ rights and anti-student loan forgiveness."

Allan Frasheri, co-president of Young Democrat Socialist of America, said he wasn’t surprised that UF released a list with only one finalist. Frasheri, along with other organizations such as UF College Democrats, Planned Parenthood Generation Action and the Alachua County Labor Coalition, are organizing protests against Sasse's hiring.

Frasheri said if Sasse is chosen for the role, he's going to have to establish trust among the UF community.

"The only way he can do that is by showing that he is committed to academic freedom and show that he cares about LGBTQ students, the bodily autonomy of our students, our tuition and the burden that students have to go through," Frasheri said.

Students have also been commenting on UF's Instagram page, expressing disappointment due to Sasse's political views.

10:50 a.m. | State rep supports choice

State Rep. Chuck Clemons said he was “surprised” but “pleased” with the choice of a fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, as the choice to be the University of Florida’s next president.

Clemons, R-Newberry, said he met Sasse six years ago in Washington, D.C., at a conference for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation. Clemons said he came away “impressed with (Sasse’s) understanding of higher education in America.”

Florida Rep. Chuck Clemons, the vice president of the office for advancement and the executive director of the  Santa Fe Foundation during the dedication ceremony of the new Santa Fe College Blount Hall, off University Ave. and 6th Street, in Gainesville, April 8, 2022.
Florida Rep. Chuck Clemons, the vice president of the office for advancement and the executive director of the Santa Fe Foundation during the dedication ceremony of the new Santa Fe College Blount Hall, off University Ave. and 6th Street, in Gainesville, April 8, 2022.

Clemons has experience in politics and higher education himself, working as vice president of Santa Fe College's Office for Advancement and as executive director of the Santa Fe Foundation. He said Sasse’s academic background — which includes five degrees, four from Ivy League institutions — should allow him to go toe-to-toe intellectually with university professors.

But he said Sasse’s political experience would also benefit UF.

“We also need to have a person at the University of Florida who can navigate the political waters” in the state and nationally, Clemons said.

Clemons was among state lawmakers who voted to pass SB 520, which allowed UF to conduct much of the presidential search outside of the requirements of Florida’s open meetings and public records laws. Under the measure, the university was allowed to keep the names of candidates secret and only publicly announce the names of any finalists.

Clemons said he didn’t expect that just one finalist would be named and was open to tweaking the law to require more finalists to be announced before a final choice was made. He said the law is meant to shield earlier applicants in the process from public disclosure that might hurt their standings at their current jobs.

Ultimately, he said, UF’s search committee is responsible for making a final recommendation.

“The only people that had a vote are the ones on the selection committee,” he said.

10:30 a.m. | Anti-LGBTQ remarks

Sasse has a history of making anti-LGBTQ remarks over years while in office.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, saying same-sex marriage was a fundamental right and protected under the 14th Amendment of the constitution.

Sasse called the ruling a “disappointment.”

“Today’s ruling is a disappointment to Nebraskans who understand that marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mom and dad,” his statement said. “The Supreme Court once again overstepped its Constitutional role by acting as a super-legislature and imposing its own definition of marriage on the American people rather than allowing voters to decide in the states.”

In July, shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which has historically protected women’s right to abortion, lawmakers formed the Respect for Marriage Act to reaffirm same-sex marriage.

Sasse told reporters it was “bull----" and a hypothetical bill because no one was challenging same-sex marriage.

“Is there a single case about it?” Sasse said to an NBCNews reporter. “I'm not answering questions that are about hypotheticals that are just Pelosi trying to divide America with culture wars. I think it’s just the same bull----. She's not an adult.”

10:00 a.m. | Mayor's reaction

In reaction to Sasse emerging as the only finalist for the UF presidency, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said, "I look forward to meeting him and discussing how the University can continue to support our shared goals in Gainesville."

9:50 a.m. | Students protest

University of Florida students are already organizing protests against the sole finalist to be the university’s next president.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., is scheduled to visit campus Monday and meet with faculty, students and other members of the university community. The UF College Democrats announced via Instagram that they would be protesting Monday outside of Emerson Hall, where some of those meetings will be held.

A petition has also been started on to protest the choice of Sasse for the position, which had garnered more than 175 signatures as of 9:50 a.m. Friday.

“This decision is met with indignation from the student body as Ben Sasse has political views that do not align with the values that the students at the University of Florida hold,” the petition reads. “They are discriminatory and non-representative of our student population."

Students are also organizing protests through other websites such as Reddit.

9:40 a.m. | Trump weighs in

Donald Trump isn’t a fan of the choice for the University of Florida’s next president.

UF announced Thursday afternoon that U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was the sole finalist for the job of the university president. Sasse will reportedly resign from the Senate at the end of this year to take the job.

"Great news for the United States Senate, and our Country itself," Trump wrote on the TruthSocial app. Liddle’ Ben Sasse, the lightweight Senator from the great State of Nebraska, will be resigning. If he knew he was going to resign so early in his term, why did he run in the first place? But it’s still great news! The University of Florida will soon regret their decision to hire him as their President…."

"….We have enough weak and ineffective RINOs in our midst," he continued. "I look forward to working with the terrific Republican Party of Nebraska to get a REAL Senator to represent the incredible People of that State, not another Fake RINO!"

Sasse was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict former President Trump of incitement of insurrection in his second impeachment trial. Trump posted Thursday on his social media platform, Truth Social, that Sasse's resignation was " great news” but that the “University of Florida will soon regret their decision to hire him as their President.”

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: University of Florida looks to Ben Sasse as next leader