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Friday, January 27, 2023

Live updates: UF presidential finalist Ben Sasse addresses community in campus visit, protestors storm forum

Sasse balanced private meetings, 3 open forums

Sen. Ben Sasse made his first official appearance on UF campus as the lone presidential finalist Monday — fielding questions on LGBTQ rights, tenure, academic freedom and his relationship with China, just to name a few. 

Monday’s forums were scheduled to go from 1:15 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. UF faculty, students and staff were encouraged to submit questions online ahead of the forum, which were due 9 a.m. Sunday. Questions were then vetted before the forum. 

Protestors shouting and banging on the President’s Ballroom doors prompted the forums to wrap up quicker than expected, leaving protestors to flood the room. 

Sasse, a U.S. senator from Nebraska, was announced as UF’s lone finalist for the university’s next president Thursday. He was unanimously selected by the UF presidential search committee, chaired by Trustee Rahul Patel. 

If selected, Sasse will become UF’s 13th president, succeeding President Kent Fuchs. Fuchs announced his resignation in January following a monthslong academic freedom scandal, where a group of professors were barred by the university from testifying in a voting rights case against the state.  

Concerns over political influence on the selection of the next president ensued from the UF community, exacerbated by a new Florida transparency law that largely kept the university’s search under wraps. Some community members felt their fears were validated by Sasse’s sole finalist status — pointing to his past seven years in Congress as a Republican senator. 

Sasse’s campus visit came four days after the initial announcement of his candidacy. Before his appearance at the three forums, he was scheduled to have several private meetings throughout the morning, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said.

Sasse will be interviewed by the UF Board of Trustees 10 a.m. Nov. 1 in Emerson Hall. The event will be livestreamed. The Nebraska senator has no other scheduled appearances to the university between Monday and Nov. 1, Orlando said, as of Friday. 

Sasse leaves early, protestors take a seat in President’s Ballroom

Sasse left the student forum about 15 minutes early, prompting around 300 protestors to enter the room and chant for Sasse to leave the Swamp. Protestors on stage called Sasse homophobic and racist in between yelling from the audience. 

“Get the f—k,” a protestor on stage called out.

“Out of our swamp!” The crowd roared in response. 

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Jazlyn Rivero, a 19-year-old design sophomore, was one of the hundreds of protestors who flooded into the ballroom. They were disgusted when they found out Sasse was the sole finalist, Rivero said. 

“He doesn’t represent who we are,” Rivero said. “That’s why I’m here to protest the ridiculousness of this candidate.”

Sasse wasn’t qualified for the position, Rivero said. The forum itself was a way to manipulate people into believing what he’s trying to promote, they said. The protest, however, was important to attend so UF administration could see community outrage firsthand, Rivero said. 

“It’ll definitely be a statement about how we feel,” they said. “Regardless of if they do something or not, we’re going to keep doing it until they do something.”

Protestors were eventually directed by organizers to take a seat, spreading out across the room. 

Confusion ensued as an organizer announced the staff forum would be moved to the third floor, but protestors weren’t allowed to enter. Most protestors returned to the second floor ballroom after. 

Around 3:50 p.m., a livestream of Ben Sasse and Rahul Patel was played on projectors around the President’s Ballroom in lieu of a third session that was originally scheduled in-person for UF staff. 

Sasse’s livestream was in a remote location with no audience, a UF spokesperson told The Alligator. 

The protestors crowded the center of the room, with a few student leaders taking the stage where Sasse was sitting just moments earlier. 

“If you see Ben Sasse, shout at him,” a protestor said on stage. “Scare the s–t out of him.”

The protestor was met with applause. 

Students and residents took turns addressing the crowd from on stage through a megaphone, demanding Sasse step away from the finalist position and accountability from the UF Board of Trustees. 

“I thought this was a democracy. I thought America was supposed to be a democracy,” an onstage protestor said. “So why don’t we have a choice?”

Protestors jumped to their feet and began booing at the livestream, starting their chants again. They then returned to their seats to listen to more protestors on stage addressing the crowd, drowning out Sasse’s livestream in the background.

Students protestors storm Emerson, interrupt Sasse forum

Coordinated stomps and cheers of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ben Sasse has got to go,” growing in volume throughout the student forum made it hard to hear Sasse. 

Protesters even broke through into the President’s Ballroom toward the end of the forum, though they were quickly ushered out by UF officials. One lone protester walked around the room holding their sign, eventually taking a seat, holding a poster high that read “Kick Ben’s Sasse.” 

At one point when they initially began making noise, Sasse stopped speaking to make a joke about the protestors’ chanting. 

“They have good rhythm,” he said, quickly getting back to the forum questions.

Later, protesters packed the room after the forum, pushing through barriers.

Lauren Lemasters, UF student body president and moderator for the student forum, said more than 1,300 questions were submitted through the UF presidential search website. 

Almost every seat was filled in the Emerson Hall President’s Ballroom when the student forum started at 2:30 p.m — a stark contrast to the half-filled room during the faculty forum.  

Before the second forum kicked off, Payton Lussier, a 21-year-old political science and statistics senior, was worried Sasse would be given easy questions. To her, one of the most pressing issues on her mind was Sasse’s previous statements on Obergefell. 

She was also unhappy with the way Sasse was selected by the presidential search committee, she said.

“The public had absolutely no insight into this,” Lussier said. “This should be more of a public debate and conversation.”

Attending the forum instead of the protest was somewhat of an easy decision for Lussier.

“If everyone starts booing, I want to be here to boo too,” she said. 

Casey Foran, a 20-year-old sustainability studies senior, also decided to sit in on the forum rather than the protest. She felt uneasy before the forum, she said. 

Sasse’s stance on climate change was one of the main factors that brought her out to Emerson. Climate change is an important aspect of the university’s research, she said.

Although Foran didn't have any classes, she said some of her friends did, causing some to miss the forum. She also felt the whole situation was on short notice.

“I’m just a little frustrated with the lack of student involvement in the process, especially compared to the choosing of our last president,” Foran said. 

The student forum began with a similar tone to the previous faculty forum as Lemasters posed a question about Sasse’s commitment to protecting UF’s LGBTQ community. 

“Your question is: Do I support and affirm everybody in this community?” Sasse said.  “Absolutely.” 

Sasse didn’t mention his previous 2015 statement on Obergefell, though he again affirmed it as the law of the land. Instead, he asserted his role as president would be making sure everyone is included.

Another question asked at the beginning of the forum was on how Sasse would develop diversity and inclusion at the university. 

Recruitment is one of the main ways he would do so, Sasse said. His response took a turn to talk about a recent study he read about the social lives of rats during COVID, eventually losing his train of thought during the question, asking for Lemasters to repeat the question.

Sasse repeated his need as a newcomer to observe metrics on the issue of diversity, but affirmed his desire to look into it. 

“I want us to figure it out,” Sasse said, “by listening to our community and our conversation, who is not feeling included and how do we tackle those problems and reduce those barriers.”

Sasse hasn’t quite done his homework, he said, on the main issues teaching assistants deal with on a daily basis. He said he imagines issues like large workload, pay benefits and graduate housing would be factors affecting TAs, but he couldn’t make a definitive statement on how those issues would be addressed.

“I can’t speak with certainty to what those issues are,” Sasse said. “But I would look forward to the dialogue [and] to hear a presentation about the challenges we face.” 

Being a Republican senator was the center of another question posed to Sasse, specifically on how he plans to remain committed to education rather than being a “political pawn.”

Sasse said he understands his job as UF president would require a different set of skills than his time in Congress.

“One of the things that’s appealing about this, frankly, is the opportunity to step back from politics,” Sasse said. 

At 2:53 p.m., protestors entered Emerson Hall, shouting loudly outside the doors of the Presidential Ball Room. 

“Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go!” protestors chanted louder and louder. 

The protestors continued to shout throughout the rest of the student forum, shaking the room from stomping in unison outside and banging on the walls. At 3 p.m., a small group of protestors entered the room and continued to chant. 

Sasse took numerous pauses as the ballroom’s doors opened, amplifying the sound of the protestors and making it difficult to hear his voice.

However, he continued to answer the questions asked by Lemasters. The forum concluded early without a section for follow-up questions from the crowd, unlike the previous faculty forum.

As for the final forum of the day with UF staff, a UF spokesperson told The Alligator the university is currently allowing students to express themselves and are pending a final decision on cancelation as of 3:30 p.m.

Sasse’s addresses faculty: I’m ‘smitten’ by UF

Sasse’s first forum of the afternoon was held in front of faculty. About 60 members of the UF community filed into the second floor of Emerson Alumni Hall as Sasse addressed questions about his previous comments on same-sex marriage, climate change and China.

Lisa Lundy, a UF professor and undergraduate coordinator of the department of agricultural education and communication, introduced Sasse to the crowd as a fifth generation Nebraskan and “cornhusker,” Lundy said, with a deep interest in higher education.

He’s a strong advocate for the principles of academic freedom and shared governance, Lundy said.

Sasse kept his opening remarks brief, getting into forum questions quickly.

Sasse described himself as “smitten” by the university, saying it seems like the university was created in a lab. 

“I think you all know that you have an incredibly special institution,” Sasse said. “But sometimes it takes an outsider’s eyes to come and see fresh what’s incredibly special.”

His speech switched course to talk about his seven years in Congress, hinting that many forum questions may be about his time in office.

Amanda Phalin, UF Faculty Senate chair, served as the moderator for Sasse’s first forum. 

Amid reports on UF’s LGBTQ community speaking out against Sasse’s comments on same-sex marriage, the faculty forum kicked off with an opening question about Sasse’s ability to recognize, protect and advance protections for the LGBTQ rights.

Though Sasse didn’t mention his statement condemning Obergefell v. Hodges — a Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal on a federal level — he did call it the “law of the land,” and affirmed it’s not going to change any time soon.

After acknowledging the value of UF’s presidential LGBTQ+ advisory board, Sasse said he wants to meet with the group and understand what’s happening on campus in the LGBTQ community. He believes the meeting will help him determine metrics to create a more inclusive campus, he said. 

“The responsibility of the president and, frankly, everybody in leadership at this institution is to create a community where people vigorously wrestle about whatever the issues are in their classes and at that moment,” Sasse said. “But [also that] the community is a place of respect and inclusion for all Gators.”

Another hot-button issue for faculty in particular is that Sasse eliminated tenure track positions as president of Midland University. But Sasse dismissed the concerns, saying allegations were just a headline. 

Though he added tenure can be abused in some cases, he stood by his stance of a strong defender of the concept.

“I will be a zealous defender of tenure,” Sasse said. “Tenure is an incredibly important tool inside a large research university like this.”

Recruiting the top faculty members in the world is a priority of Sasse’s, and having tenure is a key feature of that, he said. Sasse said he wants to eliminate the misconceptions of tenure, but also advocate for different routes for faculty members to be successful on the campus.

Worries over academic freedom following UF’s testifying scandal last year and the effects of Florida’s Stop WOKE Act were highlighted in Sasse’s faculty forum — the third topic addressed.

Some people are worried about indoctrination in the classroom, but good teaching isn’t indoctrination, Sasse said. Instead, people should be engaging in debates about topics like race in American history, he said.

“I’m a vigorous advocate for teaching the full range of debate,” Sasse said. 

Coming off the heels of Hurricane Ian’s devastating Florida landfall late last September, Sasse was posed the question as to how he would support climate change research at UF.

Sasse started off his response to the faculty question bluntly: He believes in climate change. He’s skeptical of the federal government’s role in mitigating the climate crisis, though, he said. 

“I believe strongly in climate change,” Sasse said. “I believe strongly in the role of UF to be involved in research and mitigating climate change.”

Responding to a question about his voting record on China, Sasse has no qualms with Chinese people, he said — instead, he’s against the actions of the Communist Party of China. Chinese dissidents often tell him they appreciate his outspoken comments against the Chinese government, he said.

“I don’t think I’ve said anything that should create fear among Americans of Chinese descent or local Chinese people,” Sasse said. “I am an opponent of the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Sasse said he’s very open to getting input from faculty on how the university should function.

He served as president of a university with 1,600 people, so presiding over a larger university like UF may be an adjustment, Sasse said. He referred to himself as a “lifelong learner” and said he’s excited to learn about the ways a university like UF functions. 

His responsibilities as president range from chief salesperson, cheerleader and storyteller for the university, Sasse said. 

Sasse’s decision to homeschool his children came up in the faculty forum, although Sasse called them “omni-schoolers.” His children got their education in public and private schools, but in some parts of the year, they’d be on the road with him, he said.

His school choices for his own children doesn’t influence how he would lead UF, Sasse said.

In the last ten minutes of the forum, the floor was opened up follow-up questions from the crowd. 

Daniel Ferris, a UF biomedical engineering professor, asked Sasse about a previous remark he made about how psychology majors are a waste of time. Sasse reduced the comment to a “bad joke,” and said it wasn’t his perspective. 

Low Black and minority faculty recruitment and retention came up from Trent Dwight Williams, an associate dance professor. 

“What is your commitment to the BIPOC faculty? What are some things that you will try to implement as president?” Williams said.

Metrics need to be checked when he becomes president, Sasse said, but he thinks the university needs to be recruiting “hard and fast.” 

“We need to recruit more and better,” Sasse said. “Both because it’s the right way to treat individuals, but also because our community benefits from vacuuming up a lot more talent.”

Williams wasn’t impressed with Sasse’s response, he said, and Sasse seemed to keep his answer generic to avoid being attacked for his views.

“I also think there’s not been much reading on his behalf about the University of Florida and what is actually happening,” Williams said.

Hearing more about his goals as president would have been a first step to having a more productive forum, Williams said. 

“As a leader, you’re supposed to be a visionary,” Williams said. “What are those visions that you see for the university?”

An associate computer science professor who requested anonymity to avoid getting reprimanded by her supervisor, attended the forum and said she wasn’t sold on Sasse’s responses. It felt like a Miss America Q&A, she said. 

“He gave generic answers that revealed he didn’t do his homework,” she said. 

The moderator asked hard-hitting, appropriate questions to Sasse, the associate professor said, but she didn’t feel like he answered them fully. If he had, it would have been a more fruitful discussion, she said.

For many questions, Sasse seemed to play the victim in his responses, she added.

Community gears up for protest

The announcement and his arrival to campus has prompted a scathing response from a large part of the student body on social media. Much of the community outrage will culminate outside Emerson Alumni Hall in the form of a protest at 2:30 p.m.

Criticism of Sasse has ranged from his inexperience in administration at a larger university to his past anti-LGBTQ stances

His history includes calling the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the U.S. Supreme Court case that federally protects the right to same-sex marriage, a “disappointment” in 2015. He’s also received a 0/100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard, which keeps track of how senators vote on equality-related issues.

He also celebrated the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, which federally protected the right to an abortion, in June. 

Contact Makiya at mseminera@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @makeseminera.

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Makiya Seminera

Makiya Seminera is a UF international studies and Arabic senior, with a minor in mass communication. She's currently the editor-in-chief of The Alligator, but has previously served as university administration reporter, The Avenue editor, social media manager and opinion editor. She also serves as managing editor for Florida Political Review. Over summer, she interned with The State in Columbia, South Carolina, as a politics & government reporting intern.


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