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Conservative U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse chosen as next UF president and pledges 'political celibacy'

Ben Sasse speaking during a hearing
Fresh Take Florida
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., responds to questions by the University of Florida Board of Trustees in Gainesville, Florida, on Nov. 1, 2022, as trustees decided whether to select Sasse as the school's next president.

Ben Sasse pledged not to be involved in partisan political activities as university president and said he would urge Florida’s ruling Republican party not to micromanage the school.

The University of Florida on Tuesday formally selected Ben Sasse as its next president, setting aside concerns that the appointment of a conservative Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska would further politicize the state's flagship higher education institution.

The university's board of trustees — largely appointed by Republican governors — voted unanimously to appoint Sasse, 50, as president. The outcome of the vote was never in doubt: There were no alternative candidates for the job. Sasse said he was resigning from the Senate by year’s end.

One trustee, Richard Cole, said Sasse overcame his concerns about hiring a politician. “I was very hesitant to think it was appropriate for us to bring in a politician,” Cole said. “You've overcome that for me.”

“I’m incredibly gratified,” Sasse said. He still faces formal approval by the Board of Governors, the panel that oversees all public universities in Florida. That was widely expected to happen. UF’s trustees also still must negotiate Sasse’s compensation, expected to be around $1.6 million.

Under questioning by trustees, Sasse said political issues that have been culturally divisive among progressives and conservatives “have almost nothing to do with most of the riddles we need to navigate.” He added: “People are a lot more than partisan positions.”

Sasse pledged not to be involved in partisan political activities as university president and said he would urge Florida’s ruling Republican party not to micromanage the school. He called it “political celibacy,” after a similar pledge by Purdue University’s president, Indiana’s former governor.

“It would be my plan, as I arrived here, to take a similar pledge to you all of political celibacy,” he said.

Asked whether the governor’s office helped his candidacy, Sasse said he did not speak to Gov. Ron DeSantis and hasn’t met with DeSantis since at least 2016. Florida's Senate had previously said there were no records of communications between Sasse and top GOP legislative leaders there during the search process.

He described UF changing under his presidency — "higher education is going to need to change a lot" — to accommodate what he described as technological and economic disruptions and changing population demographics across Florida. He said some changes would be uncomfortable, and the university should serve not just young adults but students as old as 35.

Sasse said professors delivering lectures in classrooms wasn't the best way to teach college students and endorsed what he called a “broader suite of experiential learning opportunities,” including internships, more laboratory settings and other hands-on learning experiences.

"Students aren't machines and universities are not assembly lines," he said.

UF students protesting and holding signs
Sera Sowers
Fresh Take Florida
Ed Arzoumanov, a junior computer science major from Aventura, Florida, joins protests among dozens of other students at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, on Nov. 1, 2022, as trustees voted whether to select Sen. Ben Sasse as the school's next president.

Asked about liberal arts teaching at UF, Sasse agreed that was as important as workplace development and lessons about science, technology and mathematics. In what might have been a jab toward students protesting his hiring, Sasse lamented what he said was cancel culture prevalent on so many campuses.

"Where is the room to change your mind, to grow, to learn, to say you were wrong?" he said.

Sasse was the only finalist to replace the school's outgoing president, Kent Fuchs, and become its 13th president. Sasse was president of a small private university for five years in Nebraska and holds a doctoral degree in history from Yale.

Sasse's political positions — including his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriages — were deeply troubling to some students and faculty on the campus in one of Florida's most progressive cities. Former President Donald Trump is no fan of the GOP senator, either, calling him a “grandstanding, little-respected senator” following Sasse’s vote to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. About 100 students protested behind barriers outside ahead of the vote on Sasse.

Sasse, who said he would resign from his job as Nebraska’s junior U.S. senator where he has served since 2015, was formerly the president of tiny Midland University, a Lutheran-affiliated school in Fremont, Nebraska.

At Midland under Sasse, full-time enrollment doubled to nearly 1,300 students, and he was credited with helping the university avoid bankruptcy and eventually turn a profit at the end of his tenure.

Some former faculty members told UF’s campus newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, that a toxic workplace persisted under Sasse, and faculty were forced to sign a loyalty oath to keep their jobs that prevented them from disparaging Sasse or the university. It’s generally recognized that such oaths would be unconstitutional at a public university.

Sasse has opposed forgiveness of student loans, endorsed tenure reviews for faculty and praised hybrid college classes that include online components as especially effective.

With trustees meeting inside Emerson Alumni Hall on campus, police had surrounded the building with barricades to prevent student protesters from disrupting their vote. Inside the building, armed officers hovered visibly just a few feet behind the lectern where a dozen students and alumni delivered brief statements — nearly all critical of Sasse — ahead of the vote.

"Once again, political meddling has made UF the laughingstock of the academic community,” said Bryn Taylor, a doctoral student and co-president of Graduate Students United.

During Sasse’s appearance on campus last month, hundreds of student protesters surged inside the same building and disrupted question-and-answer sessions by chanting and banging on the building’s walls and doors. In an interview last week with the campus newspaper, Fuchs compared the student protests to the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.

To prevent similar disruptions Tuesday, Fuchs had warned students that UF would enforce a decades-old regulation that prohibits students from protesting inside campus buildings. Violators would be punished under student rules of conduct, which can include expulsions from the university.

Fuchs earned roughly $1.4 million in total compensation each year. UF’s president lives in a gated, multi-million-dollar mansion on campus next to the law school. Sasse was earning $174,000 from the Senate, and in August reported that he owned investments worth at least $1.3 million and carried a mortgage between $250,000 and $500,000.

Florida selected Sasse as the sole finalist for the job under a new state law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by DeSantis that allowed the process to take place in secrecy. The university’s faculty senate voted 72-16 last week expressing no confidence in the selection process, citing a lack of transparency.

The head of the search committee, Rahul Patel, told donors on Oct. 15 that other finalist candidates he did not identify were sitting presidents of the nation’s top universities. “All of them had current positions,” Patel said, “made it very, very clear to us that they would not consent to being named, consent to be publicly named a finalist, unless they were the sole finalist.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the law, has said lawmakers never intended the law to shield the identities of all but a single finalist. “The goal was to get to finalists, not announce who the person was as the only finalist,” he said.

The chairman of the board of trustees, Mori Hosseini, said sitting university presidents applied for the job because they were assured their identities would not be disclosed. “In this way, the new law helped us attract leaders from across the country that we could not do in the past,” he said.

Other schools – including the University of Michigan, University of Virginia and UC Berkeley – also named a sole finalist in their presidential searches, Hosseini said.

Patel said more than half of 12 candidates near the end of the process were women or people of color. Of six final candidates considered, Sasse was the only one who was not a current university president.

Sasse’s selection follows years of political storms under DeSantis and conservatives in the Legislature that have swirled over the school, even as the governor’s administration has increased the university’s funding and allowed it to hire more professors. Under Fuchs, Florida rose to No. 5 among public university rankings with a $1 billion research endowment.

The political disputes have covered whether professors can testify in lawsuits against DeSantis, limits on how professors can talk in classrooms about racism in America, surveys of professors and students about their political beliefs, tenure reviews for professors, and whether UF – which recorded more COVID-19 cases than any other university in the U.S. – should have required vaccinations or masks in classrooms (it never did).

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at grace.banahan@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.