Protesters disrupt school’s alleged new president’s first visit to UF
Hundreds of vocal student protesters chased Sen. Ben Sasse from a stage Monday afternoon at the University of Florida, where he was selected as the sole finalist to become the school’s next president.
Before being interrupted, Sasse – a conservative Republican – defended his remarks opposing the cancellation of student loans, endorsed tenure reviews for professors and hailed hybrid college courses that include online components as particularly effective.
He did not offer a clear answer addressing concerns that his appointment would further politicize the University of Florida. Sasse noted he would resign from the Senate to take the job, and said the prospect of retiring from politics was attractive.
The campus tour of Sasse, twice elected to the U.S. Senate from Nebraska since 2015, came just days after the unexpected announcement last week by the university’s board of trustees that Sasse was the only finalist to replace the outgoing school president, Kent Fuchs.
Initial reactions to Sasse’s impending nomination as UF’s select president were mixed last week among students and faculty on campus in one of Florida’s most progressive cities. Foremost among the concerns were Sasse’s past statements and positions in opposition to same-sex marriage.
Halfway through Sasse’s hour-long session with the students inside Emerson Hall, a group of about 250 protesters, some communicating information via portable radios, entered the building. Sasse was escorted off stage as protesters chanting signs took over the room. No one appears to have been arrested immediately.
Sasse had recognized the protesters – whose cries could be heard from the room – before they stormed inside, saying he respected their First Amendment rights to voice their concerns even if he was not agree with them. Some shouted profane slogans about Sasse. Another carried a sign that read, “Keep your Sasse out of our swamp.” At one point, as the din grew outside, Sasse praised the band for singing along so effectively.
Sasse’s scheduled third session with university employees was replaced by a live chat moderated by Rahul Patel, university administrator and chair of the search committee.
The selection follows years of political storms under Governor Ron DeSantis and dominant conservatives in the Legislature that swirled over the flagship university, even as the governor’s administration increased funding for the university and allowed him to hire more teachers. Education — even higher education — has become one of the Conservatives’ front lines in the culture wars ahead of the November election.
Political disputes have centered on whether professors can testify in lawsuits against DeSantis, limits on how professors can speak in classrooms about racism in America, surveys of professors and students about their political beliefs, faculty tenure revisions, and whether UF — which has had more COVID-19 cases than any other university in the United States — should have required vaccinations or masks in classrooms (this did not never been the case). The school has also hired the governor’s controversial choice to become surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, as a professor of medicine and pays him $337,000 in addition to his state salary.
Sasse is aligned on many political issues with DeSantis, including support for restrictions on abortions and opposition to student loan forgiveness. Sasse also condemned the 2015 Supreme Court ruling requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages. UF has a vocal LGBTQ community, and this was the source of some of the earliest criticism of Sasse on campus.
Sasse on Monday sought to allay those concerns, telling the public he values both diversity and the LGBTQ community.
“I deeply believe in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every person, and I believe in building a culture and community of inclusivity,” he said.
Like DeSantis, Sasse has a strained relationship with former President Donald Trump. Sasse was among seven GOP senators to vote to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection on Capitol Hill. He also accused Trump of lying about winning the 2020 election, spoiling the response to the pandemic, and getting close to dictators and white supremacists. Trump’s endorsement in 2018 helped propel DeSantis into the governor’s mansion, but their relationship has cooled and the two could face off in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Trump, who now lives in Florida, wrote last week that he was happy to see Sasse resign from the Senate and said the University of Florida would regret hiring him as president.
On the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sasse sharply criticized China for exploiting its university partnerships to commit espionage. Lawmakers in DeSantis and Florida were equally critical. It was unclear how or if this might affect UF’s international search.
The search for a new college president took place over about seven months in near total secrecy, under a new Florida law that allowed the school to withhold names and information about potential candidates. until the final stages of the process when the finalists have emerged.
The 15-member committee that chose Sasse said it interviewed more than 700 candidates and only Sasse — former president of 1,600 students at Midland University in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska — was its unanimous recommendation. UF has approximately 52,000 students at its main campus in Gainesville and facilities in all 67 counties of Florida.
The research committee included a student, three professors and the dean of the law school. The others included four trustees, three graduates, an athletics representative, a member of the state board of governors and a former aide to President Bill Clinton who now works with the university’s fundraising arm.
Fuchs was the president of UF during the school’s rise to a top-5 ranked public university, but his leadership was questioned due to his reluctance to challenge DeSantis. The influential trade publication Chronicle of Higher Education last year described Fuchs as the “non-biting” alligator.
Fuchs announced in January that he would remain president through the fall semester and until his successor is named, then return to research and teach electrical and computer engineering in Florida after a leave of absence. sabbatical.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. The journalist can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.