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Monday, February 06, 2023

‘He won’t live a day in peace’: UF presidential finalist Ben Sasse cut off by protesters flooding Q&A

Third forum geared toward staff forced online

Sen. Ben Sasse’s first impression of UF’s student body began with a Q&A forum and ended with the chants and jeers of hundreds of protestors outside of the President’s Ballroom.

After just ten minutes protesting outside, around 300 protestors moved up the staircase of Emerson Alumni Hall to the second floor. UF administrators and police stood stone-faced outside the ballroom, Emerson Hall echoing from the slams of dozens of fists on the solid wooden doors to the ballroom.

“Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go,” they thundered.

Sasse attempted to persevere by answering moderated questions, but the shouts began to drown out his responses. 

“Obviously, I wish they didn’t have the position they have, but I strongly support the right of people to protest,” Sasse said. “I don’t precisely welcome the protesters, but I intellectually and constitutionally happily welcome the protesters.”

The protest, dubbed “Fuch the replacement,” was organized by the Alachua County Labor Coalition, Graduates Assistants United, the UF Young Democratic Socialists, United Campus Worker UF, UF College Democrats and Take Action Florida. It was scheduled for 2:30 p.m., coinciding with the start time of the student forum. 

With or without his welcome, protesters streamed into the ballroom after the student forum concluded and Sasse and Student Body President and moderator Lauren Lemasters left the room — 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Organizers took to the stage where Sasse and Lemasters sat just a few minutes earlier. Now, protesters were chanting with glee at Sasse’s absence.

“Get the f–k out of our swamp,” protesters chanted.

Thirty minutes after protesters overtook the conference room, Sasse appeared on a livestream with presidential search committee chair Rahul Patel to complete the third Q&A forum for staff. But there wasn’t an audience as originally intended. 

UF spokesperson Steve Orlando declined to disclose where Sasse and Patel were located during the livestream. Protestors seemed to believe he was still in the building on the third floor, but officials didn’t allow them access to the floor. 

UF authorities soon cleared the building of protesters after the third forum wrapped up, but they continued to chant out of the back of Emerson Hall.

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Sasse was later seen escorted into a waiting car by the University Police Department.

Soon after, dozens of protesters rushed to the main entrance of Emerson Hall on West University Avenue. Demonstrators yelled they had just spotted Sasse hop into a police car to exit the premises. 

Protesters held signs reading “Keep Sasse out of our swamp” and “Ben Sasse is A–s.” Occasionally, cars driving down West University Avenue honked in solidarity with the crowds. 

Ava Kaplan, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, addressed protesters through a megaphone outside the building. Her student experience, she said, has been marked by administrative scandals, oppression of free speech and a lack of transparency. Now, she said, these factors are having a real impact on students, staff and faculty. 

“To me, this just feels like a culmination of a lot of smaller issues we’re seeing with state legislature interfering with UF and using it as a place [where] they can come and get what they want out of it and manipulate it for their own personal gain,” Kaplan said. “And we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Senate Bill 520 as a political tool has contributed to the lack of transparency during the UF presidential search process, Kaplan said.  

Sasse toes the conservative line in polarizing national issues such as abortion, gay marriage and student debt relief — a position unlikely to bode well in Alachua County, which in 2020 voted largely in favor of President Joe Biden by the fourth largest percentage in Florida. 

The search committee chair has insisted Sasse was seen as a first academic before a politician, even though the senator has served longer in Washington than he did as the president of Midland University, a small Lutheran college in Nebraska.

In the 2022-23 school year, Midland University broke its enrollment records with more than 1,600 students. 

Amelia Packham, a 19-year-old UF political science and women’s studies sophomore, said she thinks Sasse isn’t a good representative for UF because he isn’t qualified for the position and is outspoken in favor of conservative social policy.

Packham also disagrees with the search committee’s positive evaluation of Sasse.

“If he was an academic first, he wouldn’t have been a sitting senator,” she said. “He could’ve continued in the field of academia after becoming president of that one university, which was smaller than my high school.”

If he becomes UF president, he’d be able to limit a lot of groups by cutting funding and resources the university currently provides to them, Packham said.

Grace Smith, a 20-year-old public relations junior said the student forum should have been open to public comment. By only posing pre-approved questions, she said Sasse wasn’t faced with real concerns.

“I think he’s a coward,” Smith said.  “As a queer student, I think his presence is a threat to my well-being here, and if he actually becomes president, he won’t live a day of peace.”

In 2015, 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 marriage is meant to bring together a man and a woman so children can have a mother and a father. In June, Sasse celebrated the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision that eliminated federal protections for abortion access.

UF faculty were also present at the protest and chimed in their support with student protesters. 

Paul Ortiz, a UF history professor and United Faculty of Florida union president, spoke on behalf of the Asian and Asian American faculty who are concerned about Sasse’s anti-Asian rhetoric.

In August, Sasse asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about Chinese espionage in America. Sasse’s investment in seeking out possible Chinese spies has worried UF’s Chinese faculty about being targeted by the presidential hopeful, Ortiz said.

In the days since the presidential finalist was  named, Ortiz has received more than 150 voicemails and emails from Chinese and Asian American colleagues at UF and other Florida universities out of fear and confusion, he said.

Sasse’s inability to distinguish between the actions of a state and individuals is a return to older, harsher laws, he added.

“The senator invokes the principle of collective punishment to imply that no one from China can be trusted,” Ortiz said.

Kelly Woodfine, a two-time UF alumna and assistant director in Warrington College of Business, said Sasse’s lack of qualification proves the need for transparency in the hiring process.

“I don't think that it's acceptable that someone with no vested interest or really any experience in higher or public education should become the president of the largest top public research institution in the nation,” she said.

Gina Herschel, 21-year-old UF economics and psychology major, said she attended the protest to stand in solidarity with her LGBTQ friends and classmates and show opposition to Sasse’s views. 

“I just think that the president of a university should be able to be supportive of all the student body and I think that if he doesn't agree and doesn't support a specific group of students at our university, then that is a problem,” she said.

Shael Morgan, a 53-year-old Gainseville resident, said that as the mother of a gay UF alum, Sasse doesn’t accurately represent the student body. 

“I’m a lifelong Gainesville resident, and I’ve seen its resilience,” she said. “But Sasse is not the guy UF needs.”

Protesters began moving back down Emerson’s spiral staircase and out the front doors at 4:15 p.m. after Sasse was escorted out by police. 

Joshua Zeffren, an 18-year-old UF chemical engineering freshman, said Sasse leaving the building signaled success. 

“He’s gone,” he said. “It means we as a student body accomplished something. It means when we get together we can show administration that our voice matters.”

Sasse comes with a long public record of statements, interviews, and votes in the Senate. Although his vote in 2021 to convict the former president during his second impeachment trial drew a sharp rebuke from Trump and his allies, he voted in line with President Trump 85% of the time while in the Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Sasse is expected to be interviewed by the UF Board of Trustees at 10 a.m. Nov. 1.

Sasse isn’t scheduled for any more UF visits between Monday and Nov. 1, Orlando said, as of Friday.

Christian Casale, Peyton Harris, Isabella Douglas, Aidan Bush, Lucy Lannigan, Veronica Nocera and Jiselle Lee contributed to this report.

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