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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

'Bad faith readouts': Sasse disputes previously reported accounts of his vision

UF representatives contacted The Alligator Aug. 27

Republican U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, applauds President Kent Fuchs at the Board of Trustees meeting to discuss his candidacy at Emerson Alumni Hall Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.
Republican U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, applauds President Kent Fuchs at the Board of Trustees meeting to discuss his candidacy at Emerson Alumni Hall Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

UF President Ben Sasse described previous reports of his strategic plan as inaccurate at his State of the University Address Aug. 24, but professors disagree.

The Alligator previously reported on faculty-only presentations given by Sasse across UF’s colleges that detailed his future plan. Sasse’s presentations were summarized by attendees who spoke anonymously to The Alligator because they feared repercussions from disclosing details of the president's remarks. 

Anonymous professors said Sasse presented preliminary plans to change tuition costs, reduce the total number of UF departments, eliminate "quiet-retired" faculty and restructure the delivery of education.

Media reports of Sasse’s “roadshows” did not properly capture his vision, he said Aug. 24.

“There’s a very tiny number of faculty who have decided to give bad faith readouts of these,” Sasse said. “Some comments that have been passed along to press outlets are just completely inaccurate.”

A UF spokesperson clarified details of the report that Sasse, who was not contacted for the initial report, believed were inaccurate in a statement given to The Alligator Aug. 27.

The strategic plan does not include changes to tuition, which is regulated by the Florida Legislature, according to the statement.

“[Sasse] has criticized blanket price controls and noted that UF’s economic model is different than all the other institutions in the Top 30,” the spokesperson wrote.

The Alligator previously reported Sasse doesn’t have the ability as UF president to dictate state legislation regarding subsidized tuition or the Bright Futures scholarship program under state law.

An anonymous professor previously told The Alligator that Sasse indicated a need for a reduction in the total number of UF’s 199 academic departments.

“[Sasse] indicated an ideal number would be far fewer, such as 140,” one professor wrote.

Sasse did not call for department reductions in private meetings with faculty, according to the statement.

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“He has certainly called for a more centralized approach to interdisciplinary cooperation and has celebrated both humanities and sciences by asking if we need to broaden and diversify our core offerings,” the spokesperson wrote.

The spokesperson also denied that Sasse called for the elimination of unproductive faculty.

“He’s absolutely called for addressing the problem of ‘quiet retirement’ with more transparency and rigor for teaching, research and clinical tracks,” the spokesperson wrote. 

The Alligator contacted anonymous sources across several colleges who reaffirmed their reports of Sasse’s presentations.

Initial presentations were kept private to encourage faculty input, Sasse said Aug. 24.

“We started with these as off-the-record conversations because I wanted people to be able to speak freely,” Sasse said. “I think they’ve been incredibly constructive. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve benefited from your counsel and wisdom.”

Sasse invited members of the press to two similar presentations which he gave to faculty from the College of Education and College of Dentistry Aug. 25. 

Sasse detailed how faculty will be able to contribute toward UF’s strategic plan and clarified his positions on tuition, faculty research and post-tenure review. 

He did not mention department reductions.

The future of UF’s economic model depends on the university’s ability to justify its spending of state-allocated funds, Sasse told faculty. 

“I have been very public in Tallahassee that I think they should lift all of our price controls for out-of-state students,” Sasse told College of Dentistry faculty.

Sasse predicts a shift in tuition pricing is necessary for UF’s future, including a reevaluation of the Bright Futures Scholarship Program that provides Florida Lottery-funded scholarships to in-state university students.

“We would like our students to understand what a beautiful gift the Bright Futures program is,” Sasse said. “But the Bright Futures scholarship exceeds the tuition at the university, so I think we should have some longer-term conversations about that.”

Sasse also expressed difficulty in defending unproductive faculty to the state Legislature.

“Dollar-denominated stuff is not all that matters in the world, but it's something that's easy for us to get our minds around together as a community,” he said.

Post-tenure review, a state-mandated process that requires tenured faculty’s position to be reviewed every five years, will help increase overall faculty productivity, Sasse said.

UF policy currently requires tenured faculty to undergo post-tenure review by their department chair, their dean and the university provost every seven years under the Sustained Performance Evaluation Program.

UF doesn’t plan to factor politics into its review process despite concerns from faculty, Sasse said.

Sasse also expressed a desire to build more Top 10 status programs to compete with institutions like Berkely and UCLA.

Artificial intelligence, agriculture, engineering and space as four top programs UF could achieve Top 10 status in within the decade, Sasse said.

The programs are expected to incorporate AI using HiPerGator, UF’s NVIDIA-powered supercomputer and provide faculty interdisciplinary research opportunities, Sasse said.

A UF spokesperson confirmed in a statement to The Alligator that Sasse will continue to work with faculty in his strategic planning process in the Fall semester.

“We’re planning many more conversations because this community will have a lot of great ideas and feedback,” the statement read.

Some faculty members who attended Sasse’s presentations expressed excitement about his vision for UF’s future.

F. Chris Curran, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy who attended Sasse’s presentation at the College of Education, thanked him for commitment to collaboration.

“I think all this is very exciting,” Curran told Sasse.“It’s great to have the opportunity to be a part of envisioning what the future of UF looks like.”

Faculty could also provide anonymous feedback on the “University of Florida’s next chapter” through the president’s website, Sasse announced Aug. 25.

Data collected and shared in Sasse’s presentations will eventually be made public, a UF spokesperson confirmed in a statement to The Alligator.

Sasse expected pushback to his ideas for UF’s future.

“I am used to the challenges of having to deal with audiences that are going to take some time for us to get to a shared view of it,” he said Aug. 24. 

Meera Sitharam, the president of UFF-UF, felt that Sasse’s State of the University Address mirrored previous coverage of Sasse’s presentations.

Sitharam said advocating for reevaluations to Bright Futures, out-of-state costs or held tuition goes against UF’s reputation as an affordable, high-quality university.

“Here's what UF and the State University System are known for: access at low cost to diverse types of hands-on, quality education in class and on campus, academically free scholarship, and curiosity-driven research,” Sitharam said. 

She hopes the university remains holistic for the student population it serves, even if it comes at the expense of higher rankings.“Let us not sacrifice this broad and robust excellence at the altar of narrow one-upmanship, chasing ephemeral status,” she wrote.

Sitharam said the university has a calling to serve the best interest of its students rather than the institution’s own financial incentives.

“We can do better, of course. We shouldn't just be serving at the whim of large top-down firms or chasing the public "research" dollars they have lobbied for,” she wrote.

Contact Garrett at Follow him on Twitter @garrettshanley.

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Garrett Shanley

Garrett Shanley is a fourth-year journalism major and the Summer 2024 university editor for The Alligator. Outside of the newsroom, you can find him watching Wong Kar-Wai movies and talking to his house plants.

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