Ben Sasse’s first day as UF president began with an email to students, faculty and staff with high expectations to see them around campus. That same afternoon, students, faculty and alumni gathered for another protest against him outside Tigert Hall.
“We’re going to engage ideas, build trust and sharpen each other,” Sasse wrote to students. “My wife Melissa and I are excited to see you around campus — whether we’re having lunch at the Reitz Union or cheering on Gator student-athletes this spring.”
To the faculty and staff, Sasse reiterated many of the same points from his candidacy process — that universities need to keep up with the digital revolution and that he sees his time at UF as a transformative one.
“During a time of such rapid change, we will need to ask anew first-principles questions about the purpose, duties and opportunities in front of an institution like ours that has been blessed with so much,” Sasse wrote.
Monday afternoon saw what’s become a familiar sight at UF since October: a protest against Sasse.
Frustration from attendees didn’t stop at the former Republican U.S. senator, as speakers railed against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hard-right rhetoric and policy in regard to higher education as he builds his national brand for a likely 2024 presidential run.
That afternoon, about 150 people rallied at the steps of Tigert Hall with demands for Sasse and his presidency. These included market equity raise for all UF workers; the president to publicly disavow state policies like the audits of diversity equity and inclusion and gender affirming-care programs, and rhetoric against academic freedom; and the protection of tenure for UF faculty.
There was no indication that Sasse was in the building during the protest. When protesters marched into Tigert and occupied the hallway outside of the president’s office, they were met with a locked door.
Failed protests against Sasse’s candidacy have become a familiar pattern since UF first announced him. The invasion of Emerson Hall during Sasse’s introduction didn’t stop his confirmation by the UF Board of Trustees, and scores of student comments against Sasse during his interview with the board didn’t stop his confirmation by the Florida Board of Governors.
Randi Cameon, a 75-year-old Gainesville resident who attended the protest, thinks DeSantis hand-picked Sasse for president and worries about academic suppression, she said.
“To see this happening on such a profound, deep level, is just so disturbing that I can hardly believe it,” she said.
Sasse’s office gave no statement or acknowledgement of the protest. Once the demands protesters taped to his door and throughout the second floor of Tigert were cleaned up, it was as if it had never happened at all.
After a turbulent first day, the rest of Sasse’s week was on his terms.
Tuesday, the UF president announced a new satellite campus in Jacksonville meant to focus on business, artificial intelligence and medical technology.
“UF is Florida’s flagship university, and we’ve got a special calling to serve Floridians,” Sasse said. “We have a lot to discover and to learn together, but there’s real potential for UF to add to Florida’s skilled workforce, attract new private investment and support existing growth industries.”
Sasse was joined by Mori Hosseini, chairman of the UF Board of Trustees; Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry; and Patrick Zalupski, DeSantis’ latest nominee for the UF Board of Trustees.
Sasse spoke Wednesday at the annual Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce meeting at a Hilton Daytona Beach, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Alongside Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, he opened up on his vision of higher education to a crowd of about 400.
"We're going to enter a world where people are going to experience or need higher education many, many times over the course of their life,” he said, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “But it's not going to be, again, a full-time residential experience, where you move back to an idyllic, pastoral community like lovely Gainesville and you stay there from age 34 to 38.”
After Wednesday, Sasse’s actions are unknown. UF has so far not complied with The Alligator’s requests for the president’s weekly schedule or provided comment on this story as of publication.
Despite the commotion of the first-day protest, a majority of students didn’t attend, and some were unaware that Sasse began his tenure at all.
Ava Clark, a 19-year-old UF natural resources conservation sophomore, was aware of the protest but didn’t attend, she said.
“It's good that students are actually showing their voices and actually doing that,” she said. “I don't know how much of an impact it's actually going to have. I feel like he's probably not going to cower down.”
Meanwhile, Laura Garzon, an 18-year-old UF aerospace engineering freshman, has been more focused on her school work than on the president, she said. Nonetheless, she thinks the university is in good hands, she said.
“I heard the president's name around, like, ‘Oh, cool,’” she said. “But I haven't really considered too much in my brain about it.”
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Christian Casale is a history senior and the university desk editor for The Alligator. In his spare time, he loves writing his bio for the website and watching movies alone in the dark.
Alissa Gary is a journalism freshman and university administration reporter at The Alligator. Aside from writing, she loves spending time with her cats, catching up on Jeopardy, and seeing the latest movies.