With big implications for Florida education, Ben Sasse is now officially University of Florida president

Former Sen. Ben Sasse Takes Office as University of Florida President

On Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, former Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse officially became president of Florida’s flagship university.

The pathway to Sasse’s ascension at UF has spanned numerous months — starting last October. Sasse was announced UF’s sole presidential finalist Oct. 6 and his first trip to campus came four days later for public forums and private meetings. 

Sasse has contributed a variety of ideas to the conversation surrounding UF instruction. During the Oct. 10 Q&A, Sasse floated the idea of potentially having classes taught in the metaverse. He used a program currently in place at Arizona State University as an example of this concept, saying it could offer a “much more palpable and real experience.” He also pointed to new opportunities in hybrid learning across a diverse variety of fields, as well as harnessing artificial intelligence technology to improve career services at UF.

In an article for The Atlantic in May 2022, Sasse proposed changes to how higher education is run in the U.S. Among other ideas, Sasse called on universities to “ditch the credit hour” and instead encouraged an alternative model more focused on experiential learning. 

Regarding student debt and rising tuition costs, Sasse spoke against any student debt relief. Advocating for institutions to rethink their pricing models, the senator argued that degrees should “differentiate price by field of study” to reflect the potential outcomes or “return on investment” for someone graduating with that major. In a Q&A session moderated by UF Student Body President Lauren Lemasters, Sasse reaffirmed his belief that higher education should be thought of as an investment, not a cost.

Many students and faculty at UF, however, aren’t as excited as the Board of Trustees about Sasse. Many expressed concerns about Sasse’s history on political issues, especially LGBTQ rights. In June 2015, Sasse released a statement regarding the recently decided Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which enshrined marriage equality into law. 

“Marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mom and a dad,” Sasse wrote.

Others raised questions about the nature of the UF presidential selection process. New state law shielded presidential candidates from outside scrutiny, propelling some to argue students and faculty had very little input. Additionally, both Board of Trustees chair Mori Hosseini and presidential search committee chair Rahul Patel are significant donors to the Republican Party.

On Oct. 18, the UF Student Senate unanimously passed a resolution to condemn the controversial search process and the role that Lemasters played in the selection. The UF Faculty Senate passed a resolution of no-confidence in Sasse on Oct. 27 by a margin of 72-16. Neither of these actions were binding, nor did they affect the outcome of Sasse’s confirmation. A move by student senators to impeach Lemasters was not passed by its committee, so it didn’t see a vote by the whole Senate.

On Nov. 9, during a meeting at the University of South Florida, the Board of Governors of Florida’s State University System confirmed Sasse as the next president of the University of Florida. 

Despite opposition from UF’s student body and faculty, the Board of Governors and UF’s Board of Trustees both remained optimistic about Sasse. In an email to students and faculty, Hosseini wrote of Sasse, “I am convinced he is the right person to lead UF into a bright and thrilling future.”

Sasse has experience as the former president of Midland University, a small, private, Lutheran liberal arts college in Nebraska and as a faculty member of the University of Texas. After his election to the U.S. Senate, Sasse continued to write about his approach to higher education. In another 2019 article for The Atlantic, he critiqued the college presidential search process itself in an effort to “keep the openness and excellence that make our model the envy of the world in an era when China, especially, is seeking to exploit U.S. universities for espionage purposes.”

Chart showing Ben Sasse's ascension to University of Florida president starting October 6, 2022 with the announcement, and his trip to campus four days later for public forums and private meetings.
Original graphic of Ben Sasse’s path to the UF presidency by Mia Cafaro

Additionally, it’s unclear how Sasse will interact with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Florida state government, under DeSantis, has recently taken moves to restructure higher education. 

On Jan. 31, the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, six of whom were recently appointed by DeSantis, removed university president Dr. Patricia Okker’s contract. The move came under heavy criticism from university students and politicians, who denounced the termination as a partisan move into public higher education. 

Speaking with USA Today, Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, claimed that New College had been “completely captured by a political ideology that puts trendy, truth-relative concepts above learning.” This comes as a part of DeSantis’s larger effort to combat what he calls “woke ideology.” As a political ally to DeSantis, some speculate that Sasse will be friendly to the actions of the state government.

After his confirmation by the Board of Governors, Sasse resigned his seat in the Senate for his Feb. 6 post at the university. Gov. Jim Pillen, R-Nebraska, appointed outgoing Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to serve in Sasse’s place until the seat goes up for election in 2024. According to his five-year contract, Sasse’s initial annual salary will be $1 million, with performance benefits and opportunities for pay raises.

Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.

Featured image: Former U.S. Senator Ben Sasse speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Unaltered image by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license (https://bit.ly/3RzNzKL).