UF greets presidential finalist Ben Sasse with protests and tough questions

Gainesville — Students and staff at the University of Florida warmly welcomed U.S. Senator Ben Sass to campus Monday, asking tough questions and loudly protesting the Nebraska Republican as he Try to introduce yourself as the school’s possible next principal.

Launched last week as the sole finalist for the job, the 50-year-old Sasse faces opposition to his stance against same-sex marriage, his past efforts to cancel his term and a decision by UF leaders to keep much of the selection process a secret.

In the second of three public forums, about 200 student protesters poured into the Emerson Alumni Association hall and refused to leave, waving signs and chanting “Hey, ho ho.” Ben Sass has to leave. Their cries can be heard in the President’s Ballroom, where Sass addressed the students after an earlier forum with faculty.

Sass paused a few times, smiled as the chants grew louder, and ended the student meeting about 15 minutes early. Protesters then poured into the ballroom ahead of the next meeting with university staff.

To avoid on-site noise, the school held staff meetings online instead.

Protesters occupied the ballroom for about an hour and made five demands. They want Sasse to turn down the president’s job, and they want the UF board to release the names of all 12 people they interviewed for the position — so far withheld. They also demanded greater transparency in the selection process and repeal a new Florida law that kept presidential searches at state colleges and universities largely out of the public eye.

In addition, they want UF to commit to selecting a person who demonstrates “consistent advocacy and respect for all sexual orientations, genders and races.”

A large group stayed until the end of the staff meeting with Sasse shortly after 4 p.m., some of whom said they planned to return on Nov. 11. 1. When Sasse is scheduled to be interviewed by the board.

Sasse’s day started lightly, listening to Tom Petty while he was working out in Gainesville before dawn. Melody feels more special in the musician’s hometown, he said at a faculty meeting.

But as the meeting began, he was soon faced with a series of tense questions.

Faculty members asked him about his position on tenure, which ended during a five-year tenure as president of the small Eastern Nebraska Midland University before being elected to the Senate.

Sasse makes a distinction between Midland and UF, saying tenure is a requirement for hiring at large research universities. He said he would be an “enthusiastic tenure defender” in Florida and would personally explain the merits to people who might not know in Tallahassee, a place he said he had never been to.

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But the first question for teachers and students is how Sasse will protect LGBTQ individuals in light of his previous statements against same-sex marriage.

Faculty Senate Chair Amanda Phalin said many UF faculty members were “deeply concerned” about Sasse’s position on the issue and read him the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

Sass responded that his position was a “subset” of his. “I am a firm believer in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every human being,” he said.

He added that the law has been made and UF is not considering any issues.

“There’s a lot of debate about issues in the classroom, but the community is where all crocodiles are respected and inclusive,” Sasse said.

He said he will be meeting with the LGBTQ advisory group on campus to learn more about what is needed to create a more inclusive community.

Luca Carlson, a sophomore who participated in the protest, said that while he expected a conservative appointment, he did not expect the current politicians in office to “publish hate speech.”

From left to right, students Josie Maw, Erin Enabnit and Eliza Cave cheer during a protest in the Presidential Ballroom of Emerson Alumni Hall on the University of Florida campus, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska scheduled for Monday, Oct. 10 give a speech.  October 10, 2022.
From left to right, students Josie Maw, Erin Enabnit and Eliza Cave cheer during a protest in the Presidential Ballroom of Emerson Alumni Hall on the University of Florida campus, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska scheduled for Monday, Oct. 10 give a speech. October 10, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Sass also tried to put aside what he said were other misunderstandings about his position when questioned.

He said he believed in climate change, unlike other members of his party, but believed innovation could provide solutions, not the federal government.

He said Chinese or Chinese-American academics should not be afraid of his stance against the Communist Party’s use of spies in universities. He said he had no objection to a psychology major or someone named Jeremy, referring to a joke in his high school commencement speech delivered via Zoom during the pandemic. Sass admits that his attempts at humor that day failed.

Danaya Wright, a law professor who compiled the report of the Faculty Senate’s inquiry into UF academic freedom, said in an interview that she tried to keep an open mind about Sasse.

“I think being the president of UF is a very difficult job,” she said. “No one’s going to be perfect in every way. We’ll see. Some teachers are very, very skeptical and worried. They have valid reasons for doing it. He’s going to have to prove himself.”

Sass reiterated that he is a staunch defender of academic freedom, saying it is “critical to our research mission and to what happens in vibrant classrooms.”

He said he is still learning about new Florida laws pushed by the governor. Ron DeSantis limited discussions of race and gender in class, but added that people should be able to talk about race and debate history.

“You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the original meaning of racism in America,” he said in a meeting with teachers.

He has started the meeting, saying he has not found a job at UF but is concerned about developing more flexible learners. He said students graduating now cannot expect to work in the same field throughout their careers, and he wants to be part of the solution.

He talks about the time he spent in Silicon Valley, where he came to understand the concept of disruption and the need for higher education to change the structures that were relevant 20 and 30 years ago, but not today.

U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska spoke with faculty at the University of Florida at Monday's forum.
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska spoke with faculty at the University of Florida at Monday’s forum. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Sass also mentioned his family, suggesting that the life of a college president was more appealing to him than a job in the Senate. “I don’t want to be a father who never eats dinner with his kids on weeknights,” he said.

He said he is the father of a sophomore and a freshman and an 11-year-old. He said they were “completely educated” and attended public and private schools, as well as homeschooling and private tutoring.

He said he wanted all of his studies, including at UF, to include more field experience, more language and more study abroad experience.

When asked how he would fit into the learning curve of leading a university as large and complex as UF’s, he said he would “listen, listen, listen, and listen.”

He said he doesn’t have a timetable, but “if things go the way I want them to go, I think I’ll start the new year with many, many months of listening.”

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