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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Listening, learning and ‘laying the groundwork’: Sasse spent first year as UF president mostly behind the scenes

Sasse rebounded from a less-than-welcome reception with quiet hard work, colleagues say

Ben Sasse speaks at UF Hillel’s Spread Cream Cheese Not Hate event on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.
Ben Sasse speaks at UF Hillel’s Spread Cream Cheese Not Hate event on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

Danaya Wright, the UF Faculty Senate chair, doesn’t think UF President Ben Sasse sleeps.

“He is working his little tail end off,” she said. “He’s up at four in the morning. Criticize him all you want, but you cannot say he’s not working hard.” 

For the past year and a half, many have indeed criticized Sasse all they wanted. 

After a search committee announced Sasse as the sole finalist for the presidency in October 2022, the campus erupted in protests that the former United States Republican senator would bring a conservative agenda to campus. In particular, Sasse’s past remarks condemning same-sex marriage worried the university’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Faculty members had good reason to be skeptical, Wright said. They had made clear to the search committee they wanted an academic as president, not a politician. Many worried Sasse would purge LGBTQ+ students and faculty or cut certain academic fields, she said.

One year later, most faculty are breathing a sigh of relief that no such purge has taken place, Wright said.

Instead, Sasse spent his first year putting his head down to learn the workings of what Wright called the most complicated institution in the country. 

UF rose in rankings in recent years, but many of its programs are hanging on “by their fingernails,” Wright said. Sasse took office in time to face the unglamorous task of pausing and ensuring the university has a strong foundation before moving forward.

Sasse’s main challenge isn’t his lack of ideas, but figuring out what to prioritize with limited resources, Wright said.

“He’s so funny. At the board retreat, he gave us a presentation of what he wants to accomplish, and it’s, like, 200 amazing things,” she said. “He just went on and on and on.”

Sasse identified three future areas of focus — creating a “dual core” curriculum, focusing on individual programs and expanding into artificial intelligence — in an email to The Alligator Jan. 30. In his first-ever one-on-one interview with The Alligator, Sasse also addressed concerns about post-tenure review, the Bright Futures scholarship and faculty retention.

A “dual core,” a 10x10x10 goal and AI expansion: what do Sasse’s ideas mean for UF?

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At a faculty senate meeting in December, Sasse asked faculty to explore how the university can update its core curriculum. He hoped to see STEM majors take more humanities classes and humanities majors be equipped for the digital revolution, he said.

Chair-elect Sarah Lynne, a UF family, youth and community sciences associate professor, took charge of a task force that will examine what the current core involves and how it can improve.

The task force will first consider a “dual core” model featuring one set of core requirements for STEM-aligned majors and a separate one for humanities — while also prioritizing crossover between the two, Lynne said.

Faculty were originally anxious about a mandated dual core system but soon realized Sasse was interested in communication, not commands, she said.

“One of the things I see that makes me optimistic is that President Sasse is engaging with the faculty senate on this,” she said. “I think it's really great that we have a good example of shared governance and action here.”

Sasse also identified a 10x10x10 goal to have 10 of the university’s programs among the top 10 of their kind in the country within 10 years. He shares this goal with Scott Angle, whom Sasse appointed permanent UF provost in January.

Angle is glad Sasse spent his first nine months gathering input on goals like 10x10x10 before acting, he said.

“I think we should be happy that he's vetting his ideas before they just kind of fall out of the sky and hit us on the head,” he said.

Now, Sasse is moving from planning to sharing his plans, while still getting feedback every step of the way, Angle said. He and Sasse agree UF should benefit all students — even those who leave UF prematurely for financial reasons or to serve overseas — not just the traditional four-year degree student, he said.

Expanding into AI will be key to educating all students, both in STEM or non-STEM fields, said former provost Joe Glover.

Glover overlapped with Sasse for the first six months of his presidency at the Board of Trustees’ request, he said. Glover announced his departure in January, but as senior advisor he will continue working on projects — many AI-related — with Sasse, he said.

Continuing the AI initiative was one of the first areas on which he and Sasse connected, Glover said. Glover led the 2019 installation of the university’s supercomputer, the HiPerGator.

“In having the AI initiative, we really look unique as a university across the country,” he said. “That’s the wonderful foundation that the president gets to build on.”

“Those reports are nonsense”: Sasse denies political climate drives away faculty

Sasse took to X Dec. 3 to rebuke The New York Times’ article claiming Florida university faculty are leaving the state due to political concerns. His 12-part, 500-word thread started with “holy moly,” ended with “well, back to Sunday Night Ball,” and, in the middle, accused The Times of forcing an inaccurate political narrative for clickbait.

While the Times reported faculty turnover went from 7% in 2021 to 9.3% in 2023, Sasse pointed out the university is still below the national average of 10.6%. He also mentioned UF has hired more faculty than have left every year since 2017, omitting the pandemic’s impacts on 2021.

Sasse emphasized his position in his email interview to The Alligator.

“Faculty are fighting to come to UF: that’s the actual headline,” he wrote. “It’s wrong for national journalists to cherry-pick and flatly ignore data in an effort to advance cookie-cutter narratives.”

But there are other metrics of faculty retention that don’t show up in HR databases, said Board of Governors member and UF business professor Amanda Phalin.

The university can see how many faculty are coming or going but not the people who drop out of a search, she said. It also can’t determine when someone at a conference tells a friend they were going to apply to UF but decided against it.

At the end of the day, Sasse is correct that more people are coming into UF than going out, Phalin said — but this is largely, she thinks, because of its high reputation.

“You can picture someone saying, ‘Oh my gosh, should I come to UF? Well, I know that the political environment might not be what I want, but it's UF, it's this really great program. I'm going to do it,’” she said.

Far from worrying about losing faculty to other states, Sasse is working to recruit out-of-state talent to UF, said UF Vice President for Human Resources Melissa Curry. 

Sasse knows he must “steal” the best faculty from around the country for UF to climb national rankings, so both recruitment and retention are big causes for him right now, she said.

Future of Bright Futures scholarship, post-tenure review unclear

Sasse alarmed UF students in his August State of the University address by predicting a reevaluation of the Bright Futures Scholarship Program, which provides Florida Lottery-funded scholarships to in-state students meeting academic credentials. Six months later, he called himself a “fan” of the scholarship but re-emphasized its format could improve.

Families who could easily afford the university’s in-state tuition are still getting unneeded money from the scholarship, Sasse wrote. He would prefer a balance with need-based scholarships.

A change to the Bright Futures model must come from the legislature, not Sasse, said Florida Board of Education Chancellor Ray Rodrigues. He hasn’t personally discussed Bright Futures with Sasse, he said.

Rodrigues credits Florida’s low tuition for its universities’ steady enrollment and growth amid decreasing demands for — and increasing mistrust in — higher education nationwide.

Sasse agrees with the board that to be successful, universities must be able to show the public their tax money is well-spent, Rodrigues said. Sasse is highly respected in Tallahassee, he said.

“When President Sasse came to Tallahassee to meet with the legislature, as a former U.S. senator, he spoke their language,” he said.

Sasse’s good impression on lawmakers led to high funding from Tallahassee to UF in the most recent legislative session, Rodrigues said.

UF received over $126 million in performance-based funding from the Board of Governors in June for the 2023-2024 year. The university received 19.5% of the Board’s performance funding budget for all state universities, an increase less than 1% from 2022-2023.

Sasse sees nothing political about lawmakers being interested in how the university is spending its resources, he wrote in his email to The Alligator. As far as the transition from politics to higher education, Sasse enjoys UF more than the U.S. Senate, he wrote.

“All ‘Swamps’ are not created equal,” he wrote. “Our new Swamp is a lot more fun.”

Another communication between Tallahassee and UF emerged in March, when the Board of Governors approved a post-tenure review regulation. Under the regulation, faculty must undergo reviews every five years to “ensure high standards of quality and productivity.”

Amanda Phalin, as chair of the statewide group of faculty senate leaders, believes she and Sasse are moving closer together in their opinions on post-tenure review, she said. The review should be about honoring faculty as much as holding them accountable, and she trusts him to find the best way forward regardless of legislative pressure or fear of public reaction, she said.

“He's not the kind of guy who's going to lick his finger and stick it in the wind and see which way the wind is flowing,” she said. “He's going to do what he thinks is right.”

LGBTQ+ opinion remains mixed

Sasse’s lack of public interactions distinguishes him from former UF President Kent Fuchs, whose “way of being” was being one with the students, Phalin said.

But in the past months, Sasse has appeared more and more on campus, from selling Gatorades at UF football games in the fall to stepping into the classroom in the Spring to teach “The American Idea” to UF Honors students alongside two other professors.

Meghan Curry, a 20-year-old UF English student, jumped at the chance to have Sasse as a professor even though she didn’t need the class requirement, she said. Three weeks into the course, she hasn’t met Sasse yet — she was absent during the only lecture he’s given thus far.

“He wanted to be here today, because he knows a lot about the topic that we talked about — Tocqueville, or something,” she said. “But then he had to go to Africa.”

Curry hasn’t met Sasse yet, nor has she heard much about what he’s been doing on campus, she said. As a gay student, Curry prioritizes LGBTQ+ issues and knows people were angry with Sasse for past comments. But her mother, Melissa Curry, who works closely with Sasse, assured her he doesn’t plan to bring politics to UF, she said.

The president typically meets with the LGBTQ+ presidential council once per academic year, but the council has yet to ask Sasse for a meeting, said the council’s co-chair and UF anthropology Associate Instructional Professor Stephanie Bogart. Sasse did meet with a small group of the council’s leaders in May — a meeting for which Bogart was not present.

“The president does not really engage or support or anything like that with regards to the LGBTQ community,” Bogart said. “So, I think people are kind of frustrated.”

As the Spring 2024 semester begins and the Florida legislative session ends, faculty and students will look to Sasse for guidance on new regulations limiting DEI funding.

If Sasse’s leadership pattern continues, his response will be to keep his head down and keep working, both in the university and the UF football concessions circuit.

Contact Zoey Thomas at Follow her on X @zoeythomas39.

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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