Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, has been under the scrutiny of UF’s student body since he was announced as the sole finalist for UF’s next president Oct. 6. Graduate students are no exception.
Sasse’s past voting record and expressed lack of knowledge on UF graduate students’ issues has raised concerns for some students across campus. Others feel confident about his potential ascension to the presidency.
Paul Wassel, the 26-year-old Graduate Student Council president, said the general reaction he’s seen from the graduate student body has been negative. Students are especially concerned about Sasse’s Senate voting record related to LGBTQ rights, he said.
As UF President, Sasse would regularly interact with the Board of Trustees, which has control over the level of research funding different graduate departments receive. Although the potential change in leadership could alter graduate student life, Wassel said he believes most of the power still lies with the board.
“I wouldn’t ring doom bells as loud around the graduate student experience,” he said.
As GSC president, Wassel said he has been seeing a steady increase in graduate student visibility at UF, which he hopes to see continue under the next administration.
“There’s a lot of momentum around graduate students right now,” he said. “I don’t think one presidential selection is going to make a difference in that momentum.”
Shortly after Sasse was announced, students from the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology published a statement directly opposing the nomination. The students are concerned about Sasse’s qualifications and his ability to fulfill UF’s core values, according to the statement.
But the main point of contention comes from Sasse’s controversial remarks during a 2020 commencement speech to Fremont High School in Nebraska.
He told students not to major in psychology because they “make a whole bunch of money by just trying to help other people forget high school.” He also said psychologists “just research hamsters who get lost in mazes.”
Seventy-eight students from the department signed the statement opposing Sasse. Dakota Leget, a 27-year-old PhD student, was one of them.
“For myself, it just feels like a big slap in the face that someone who has said such disparaging remarks may be appointed,” Leget said.
During the Oct. 10 faculty Q&A forum , Sasse clarified the statements were meant to be jokes. They didn’t come across well over Zoom, he said.
But 30-year-old Nicole Evangelista, another PhD student who helped to draft the department’s statement, said she’s still concerned his attitude toward psychology could affect funding and other benefits toward the department. Acknowledging his remarks were untrue in addition to being humorous would have been a better way to handle the situation, she said.
“The first word that comes to my mind is accountability,” she said. “Intent does not necessarily mean impact. Taking accountability for the impact that he had would have been something I would have been looking for in a leader.”
However, not all graduate students are looking at Sasse as the wrong choice. Kevin Freile, a 26-year-old Warrington College of Business master’s student, worked with Sasse during a summer internship on Capitol Hill. He interacted with Nebraska's representatives and senators often, Freile said, and Sasse was the most polite senator he met.
“He was very down to earth, which is kind of hard to find up there,” Freile said. “He always struck me as an intelligent, well-spoken and extremely well-mannered person.”
Freile thinks Sasse will make a good president due to his consistent dedication in Congress to education improvements, he said.
Sasse was asked during the Q&A forum about what he was going to do to improve the lives of teaching assistants, the majority of which are graduate students. He wasn’t familiar with issues they were facing at UF specifically, he said.
In order to better help TAs, Sasse wants to meet with them and have one-on-one conversations about how he can help advance their UF experience, he said. Housing, pay and workload are potential problems he’d be willing to discuss, he said.
UF Graduate Assistants United for the past year has been negotiating the graduate assistant minimum stipend, the yearly salary they receive for their work at the university. Currently, the union has tentatively agreed to a minimum of $22,753. It still plans to reopen negotiations this year to get to a higher wage, GAU Co-President Bryn Taylor said.
GAU condemned Sasse via an Oct. 6 Instagram post. The organization cited Sasse’s voting history as being anti-labor unions. Union members were disturbed by the nomination, according to the post, and GAU leaders attended the protest that eventually pushed its way inside the Q&A forum’s ballroom.
On the subject of housing, Sasse didn’t address specifics at the forum. Derek LaMontagne, the 36-year-old president of the Mayor’s Council — a graduate student housing leadership group — said availability for graduate housing has been an issue the past few years.
LaMontagne is starting a coalition of student organizations to protest the alleged demolition of Maguire Village and University Village South, two graduate housing complexes that encompass 348 student units, he said.
He’s met with current UF President Kent Fuchs about the issue, but he said he didn’t get far. The change from Fuchs to Sasse might not affect the issue at all, he said. The target audience for the protests is UF Housing, he said, not the president.
Because he hasn’t gotten any traction with the issue, LaMontagne said he hopes if anything, Sasse has a positive effect on negotiations.
Contact Siena at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.