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Saturday, December 03, 2022

UF community weighs in ahead of UF presidential finalist Sen. Ben Sasse’s campus visit

Sasse’s stances on abortion, gay marriage concerning for some

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Photo via AP)
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Photo via AP)

The announcement of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Nebraska), as the sole candidate to replace Kent Fuchs as UF president caused a stir not only in the university community, but the national political landscape. 

Public comments on Sasse's hire ranged from optimistic to fatalistic, from UF students to the chair of the Board of Trustees, from the faculty union's president to the former president of the United States. Search administrators have lauded Sasse’s experience in academic and public service, while student groups have blasted the senator for his political stances against gay marriage and abortion.

Sasse plans to resign from the Senate by the end of this year for the UF president position, as reported by CNN. 

Rahul Patel, a UF trustee and the chair of the search committee that unanimously voted to select Sasse as their nominee, cited the senator's record of public service, leadership in higher education and advocacy for academic freedom as the qualities that set him apart. The committee heard from more than 700 potential candidates UF contacted during its more than six-month-long search, according to a UF press release.

Bryn Taylor, the co-president of Graduate Assistants United, said her organization is disappointed by UF’s choice. Because Sasse isn’t from Gainesville or familiar with it, Taylor said he’s not representative of UF's student body.

"His actions while in the senate infringe on the wellbeing of LGBTQ GAs, GAs that can become pregnant, and GAs with limited access to health care and child care," Taylor said, referring to Sasse's stances on abortion and gay marriage.

In 2015, Sen. Sasse spoke out against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case that federally protects same-sex marriage, saying that marriage is meant to bring together a man and a woman so children can have a mother and a father. In June, Sen. Sasse celebrated the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that eliminated federal protections of abortion access.

In a statement Thursday, Sasse said he had resisted the pursuits of different universities over the past two years, but he couldn’t resist the offer to come to what he called the “most interesting university” in the U.S.

"The caliber of teaching and research at UF is unmistakable, carried out through the core principles of shared governance and academic freedom," Sasse said. "I'm thrilled about the opportunity to work alongside one of the nation's most outstanding faculties."

The committee first heard Sasse suggested as a potential candidate at one of the UF stakeholder listening sessions, Patel told The Alligator. Patel said he couldn’t recall in which particular sessions, with which particular stakeholders, that Sasse’s name came up.

"He came to us through a number of the listening sessions that I participated in," Patel said, "group listening sessions and individual listening sessions."

Patel declined to comment on the specifics of when Sen. Sasse was first contacted by the search committee for the presidency, when he interviewed for the job or when he agreed to move forward as the nominee — citing the new Florida transparency law, which has largely allowed the presidential search to occur behind closed doors.

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Sasse will come to campus Monday, where students, faculty, and staff can submit questions online and share their thoughts about him following the visit through UF's presidential search website. The event will also be live-streamed, according to the press release.

UF’s Board of Trustees will interview him in a live-streamed session at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, in Emerson Alumni Hall.

Raised in Nebraska, Sasse attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and later received a doctorate in American history at Yale University. He pursued teaching at the University of Texas while advising private equity clients. 

From 2010 to 2014, Sasse served as the president of Midland University — a small, Lutheran school in Nebraska that in 2022 serves 1,600 students.

In 2014, Sasse won Nebraska's U.S. Senate election in a year when Republicans took the chamber's majority; he was re-elected in 2020. In both general elections, Sasse won every county in the state.

As the closed-off process of selecting a UF president perpetuated fears of a political appointment, the selection of a Republican U.S. senator by a search committee was chaired by Patel, a Republican donor. Patel was selected to chair the committee by the Board of Trustees chair Mori Hosseini who has close ties to Florida's Republican governor, which has raised eyebrows about outside political influence.

The search committee noted early in the search that a crucial leadership characteristic of UF's next president is that they "will not use the University of Florida as a platform to advocate for personal political viewpoints."

While many may feel choosing a politician makes the process' conclusion inherently political, Patel stressed that the search committee doesn't see it that way.

"The committee unanimously believed that Dr. Sasse is first an academic, who happens to currently hold political office," Patel said.

Sasse beat out 11 other final candidates, nine of whom were presidents at research universities, according to UF’s press release. Sasse was the 35th most conservative U.S. Senator from 2019 to 2021, according to GovTrack, a government transparency analyzer. 

However, Sasse drew the ire of many in his party for voting to convict former President Donald Trump in his 2021 Senate impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection..

"Like every senator, Ben's job was to vote yes or no on legislation on behalf of his state," Patel said. “He did that job. But that's not this job — putting aside politics and coming back to academia to lead us through this exciting new era."

The announcement of Sasse as UF's likely next president has since evoked a strong reaction from various campus groups.

UF organizations have planned a protest at 2:30 p.m. Monday to oppose Sasse's candidacy outside of Emerson Hall, where several of the public forums will take place, UF Young Democratic Socialists of America said in a statement. It’s being co-signed by a slew of progressive organizations such as United Faculty of Florida, GAU, United Campus Workers, UF YDSA, UF College Democrats, UF Planned Parenthood Generation Action, Take Action Florida and the Alachua County Labor Coalition.

UF YDSA said in a statement that Sasse's political positions don't conform to the views of the UF student body.

"UF students are queer,” the statement read. “UF students have had abortions. Sen. Sasse's actions have shown that he does not support the inclusion of these students.”

But not every UF student is ready to picket outside Emerson Alumni Hall.

Matt Turner, president of UF College Republicans, defended Sasse as a candidate and criticized the planned protest in a statement Friday morning.

“Senator Sasse seems to have several qualities that would make him an effective president for all students, regardless of their political affiliation," Turner said. "Protesting somebody purely because there is an R next to their name cuts directly against the principles of tolerance and merit-based evaluation that this University used to stand for.” 

Through the criticism, Patel has maintained that Sasse's days as a political actor would be behind him as UF president and the senator will have a wide appeal.

"I think his intellectual curiosity, his belief in the power of American universities to change lives, his vision, his humility, his integrity, his incredible, personable nature and his deep concern for humanity are all traits that I believe students will resonate with," Patel said.

Paul Ortiz, president of UF's United Faculty of Florida and a history professor, said the decision is up to Sasse whether he can conform to UF, not the other way around.

UF is known for its prowess as a research university that defends intellectual freedom, Ortiz said.

"We're going to continue to do that. so it's really up to Senator Sasse,” Ortiz said. “He's the one who's going to have to learn. He's going to be the one that has to learn our culture."

Ortiz also said he’s critical of the lack of transparency in 2022's presidential search compared to 2014's — which ended in the selection of President Kent Fuchs. In 2014, candidates were named throughout the process for faculty to independently vet and consult the search committee on. The search came down to three final candidates who visited campus to interview with the Board of Trustees that October.

"This mirrors a lot of what happens in corporate America, where decisions are made by the people at the top, and then the rest of us are invited to participate after the decision has already been made," Ortiz said. "The lack of transparency in this search is appalling in a free society."

Ortiz, who has been with UF since 2008, positively acknowledged Sasse's recent statement in support of academic freedom, which the professor said is the kind of stance that would allow the senator to work out as the university president. 

But to Ortiz, whoever lives in the president's manor is far less important to the university than its students, faculty, and staff.

"Whoever happens to be president, or provost, or the chair of the Board of Trustees, doesn't matter to my students on Monday afternoon, when they're preparing for their midterm exams," Ortiz said. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Midland University has an enrollment of about 1,600 in 2022. The Alligator originally reported differently.

Contact Christian at ccasale@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @vanityhack.

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Christian Casale

Christian is a fourth-year history major. In the past, he’s served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Valencia Voice. He now covers the University Administration for the Alligator. In his free time he likes reading and nodding along to Bruce Springsteen songs.


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