GAINESVILLE – Students and faculty at the University of Florida gave U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse a wild welcome to campus Monday, greeting the Nebraska Republican with pointed questions and a loud protest as he tried to introduce himself as the school’s likely next president.
Introduced last week as the sole finalist for the job, the 50-year-old Sasse faced opposition over his stances against same-sex marriage, his past efforts to do away with tenure and a decision by UF leaders to retain much of the selection process secret.
During the second of three public forums, about 200 student protesters crowded into the lobby of Emerson Alumni Hall and refused to leave, waving signs and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho. Ben Sasse has to go.” Their shouts could be heard inside the president’s ballroom, where Sasse addressed students after an earlier forum with faculty.
Sasse paused a few times and smiled as the chants grew louder, then ended the student session about 15 minutes early. The protesters then poured into the banquet hall ahead of the next session with university staff.
To avoid the rowdy scene, the university held the staff session online instead.
The protesters made five demands while occupying the ballroom for about an hour. They wanted Sasse to turn down the president’s job and for UF’s board to release the names — so far withheld — of all 12 people they had interviewed for the post. They also called for more transparency during the selection process and the repeal of a new Florida law that keeps presidential searches at state colleges and universities largely out of public view.
Additionally, they wanted UF to commit to electing someone who demonstrated “consistent advocacy and respect for people of all sexual orientations, genders and races.”
The large group stayed until the employee session with Sasse ended shortly after 1 p.m.
Sasse’s day started on a lighter note after listening to Tom Petty songs during his pre-dawn workout in Gainesville. He said during the faculty session that the tunes felt more special in the musician’s hometown.
But he soon faced a tense series of questions as the session began.
Faculty members asked him about his views on tenure, which he completed in a five-year term as president of small Midland University in eastern Nebraska before being elected to the Senate.
Sasse drew a distinction between Midland and UF, saying tenure was a necessity for recruiting at a major research university. He said he would be a “zealous defender of tenure” in Florida and would take it upon himself to explain its benefits to people who might not understand in Tallahassee, a place he said he has never been.
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But the first question from faculty and students alike was how Sasse would protect LGBTQ individuals, based on his previous statements opposing same-sex marriage.
Amanda Phalin, chair of the Faculty Senate, said many UF faculty are “deeply concerned” by Sasse’s stance on this issue and read him the university’s non-discrimination policy.
Sasse responded, saying his views were a “subset” of who he was. “I believe deeply in the immeasurable value and universal dignity of each person,” he said.
He added that the law is set and nothing is under consideration at UF that would question it.
“People fight mightily about what the issues are in the classroom,” Sasse said, “but the community is a place of respect and inclusion for all Gators.”
He said he would meet with the LGBTQ advisory group on campus to learn more about what is needed to create a more inclusive community.
Lucca Carlson, a sophomore at the protest, said while he expected a conservative appointment, he did not expect a politician currently in office “who had publicly made hateful statements.”
During the questioning, Sasse also sought to set aside what he said were other misunderstandings about his views.
He said he believes in climate change, unlike other members of his party, but feels innovation can provide the solutions, not the federal government.
He said Chinese or Chinese-American scholars should not be afraid of his stance against the Chinese Communist Party hiring spies in universities. And he said he didn’t mind people majoring in psychology or people named Jeremy, a reference to jokes he made during a commencement speech he gave via Zoom during the pandemic. Sasse admitted that his attempt at humor that day was a flop.
Danaya Wright, a law professor who put together the Faculty Senate report investigating academic freedom at UF, said in an interview that she tried to keep an open mind about Sasse.
“I think being president of UF is a very difficult job,” she said. “No one is going to be perfect in every aspect of it. We’ll wait and see. Some faculty are very, very skeptical and concerned. And they have valid reasons to be. He’s going to have to prove himself.”
Sasse reaffirmed that he was a staunch defender of academic freedom, saying it is “essential to our research mission and critical to what happens in a dynamic classroom.”
He said he is still learning about a new Florida law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that limits discussion of race and gender issues in the classroom, but added that people should be able to talk about race and have debates about history.
“You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the original sin of racism in America,” he said during the session with faculty.
He had opened the session saying that he had not sought out the UF job but was concerned about the issue of creating more agile students. He said students graduating now can’t expect to work in the same field throughout their careers, and he wants to be a part of solving that problem.
He talked about time spent in Silicon Valley where he came to understand the concept of disruption and the need for higher education to change structures that were relevant 20 and 30 years ago but not today.
Sasse also mentioned his family and suggested that the life of a university president was more attractive to him than the Senate job he has. “I didn’t want to be a father who never shared family dinners with his children on weekdays,” he said.
He said he is the father of a sophomore and a college freshman, as well as an 11-year-old. They were “omni-schooled,” he said, going to public and private schools as well as home schooling and private tutors.
He said he hopes all learning, including at UF, includes more field experiences, more languages and more study abroad.
Asked how he would adjust to the learning curve of leading a university as large and complex as UF, he said he would “listen, listen, listen and listen some more.”
He didn’t have a timeline, he said, but “if this goes the way I hope it will, I imagine I would start in the new year and there would be many, many months of listening.”