I was there at Sen. Ben Sasse’s forum in a middle row next to some new acquaintances, interacting with them about the presidential finalist as we awaited his Q&A. The ideas passed along ranged from expressions of trepidation to full confidence, but the mindset guiding all those with whom I conversed was a curiosity to understand Ben Sasse’s interest in UF and to hear his answers to the student-submitted questions.
As the Q&A progressed, I heard him address questions related to his commitment to inclusion on campus, his interest in being president at this university, policies on professors’ tenure and much more. The answers were well-reasoned and articulated clearly, as one would expect from a sitting U.S. senator. However, as the session continued, shouts of disapproval grew.
Eventually, the din became enough such that the senator abruptly ended the Q&A early and was whisked out of the room by campus police as protestors rushed in, climbing atop the podium and shouting ever louder. As the protestors continued their posturing, I was informed another session was being livestreamed in an adjacent room.
Making my way there, I sat down to listen and to further hear from the senator himself. However, even this Q&A was disrupted as protestors outside the room kicked the ceiling-to-floor windows while shoving their middle fingers toward all those inside. At this, I stood up and walked through the wildly agitated masses to make my way out of the building.
As I have conversed with fellow students and read multiple news reports and opinions about this situation, I have interacted with no shortage of thoughts. Oddly, while listening to all these perspectives and reflecting on my own experience at the Q&A, my foremost impression of this ordeal has nothing to do with Sasse himself. It concerns freedom of belief and academic liberty here at UF.
Ironically, one of the main complaints of the protestors who interrupted the student-submitted question and answer session was Sasse wouldn’t answer their critiques of why they think he’s unfit to be UF president. They caused him to finish the event early and yelled “coward” after he had left the room. To summarize clearly: they loudly pushed him out of a public Q&A for student-submitted questions and then complained he wouldn’t address their questions.
If they had attended the Q&A, they would have seen he addressed many of their concerns including inclusivity at UF for students who identify as LGBTQ. One must wonder if the protestors were sincere in wanting to engage with the senator. Regardless, their demonstration went against what has historically been principled tenets of academia — free exchange and expression of ideas — and demonstrated a childishly illiberal way of confronting opposing viewpoints.
During his Q&A, Sasse answered the questions that I came ready to ask and I am now quite confident in his ability to lead UF as our president. Maybe if the protestors listened more and shouted less, they would be too.
Robert Thomas Lattus is a UF electrical engineering graduate student.