The University of Florida Board of Trustees unanimously approved Republican US Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska as the university’s new president Tuesday in the face of faculty and student criticism over the secretive search process, his limited relevant experience and his past criticisms of same-sex marriage.
Ahead of the vote, Sasse spoke to the board Tuesday and outlined his reasons for taking the job and his plans to position UF to succeed in what he called an age of technological disruption.
“I’m here rather than at some other school, or rather than trying to claw to stay in the United States Senate for decades, because I believe that this is the most interesting institution in the state that has the most happening right now, and is therefore the best positioned to help lead our country through a time of unprecedented change,” Sasse told the board Tuesday.
When asked about his plans related to LGBTQ faculty and students, Sasse said he expected that his positions would be the same as that of outgoing President Kent Fuchs. He also declared his intention to adhere to “political celibacy,” saying he would step down from all partisan activities.
“I’m not a partisan figure in this role,” he said.
The trustees approved Sasse’s appointment by a 13-0 vote. The Board of Governors meets November 10 for final approval.
“I am incredibly gratified by the engagement,” Sasse said after the vote. “In a community this big, there is going to be a lot of diversity of opinion, and that is a good – not a bad – thing.”
The appointment is a sharp career shift for Sasse, a sitting senator who was elected in 2014 and was reelected to another six-year term just two years ago. A conservative who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump after the attack on the US Capitol, Sasse has said he plans to resign his Senate seat for the position at UF.
Prior to his election to the Senate in 2014, Sasse was president of Midland University, a private Lutheran liberal arts school in Nebraska with an enrollment of about 1,600 students. He graduated from Harvard and earned a PhD in American history at Yale and also worked at Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and private equity firms, according to his website.
By contrast, UF, one of the premier public universities in the country, has an enrollment of over 60,000 students on a 2,000-acre campus with over a thousand buildings. Unlike Sasse, UF’s most recent presidents had extensive, decades-long careers as administrators at major universities prior to taking the school’s top job.
His appointment comes amid concerns of undue political influence at the University of Florida under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Last year, three professors were barred from testifying as paid experts in a voting rights lawsuit challenging a new voting law signed by DeSantis, a decision that was later overturned.
The 15-person University of Florida Presidential Search Committee announced Sasse as its sole finalist to become UF president last month.
“Ben brings intellectual curiosity, a belief in the power and potential of American universities, and an unmatched track record of leadership spanning higher education, government and the private sector,” committee chair Rahul Patel said in the statement.
The committee said in a statement they had reached out to more than 700 candidates and unanimously chose Sasse.
His candidacy sparked protests and opposition from students and faculty. Last month, student protesters entered an open forum with Sasse and chanted against his appointment. The university announced it would enforce its rule barring protests inside buildings on campus for Sasse’s public appearance on campus Tuesday.
In addition, the UF Faculty Senate last week approved a no-confidence resolution by a 67 to 15 vote disapproving of the process that led to Sasse’s selection.
Sasse pick criticized for secrecy and LGBTQ views
About a dozen students spoke against the approval on Tuesday morning in front of the Board of Trustees, questioning why Sasse – a partisan politician with limited experience and no apparent connection to Florida – was the committee’s only candidate.
“It’s hard for many students to envision a leader that has negative things to say about members in our community,” said Paul Wassel, graduate student council president. “For others, their thoughts are clouded by wondering how Dr. Sasse can be the most qualified candidate for this position considering what was claimed as an exhaustive search. I too myself have doubts in these two areas for Dr. Sasse.”
Outside the building where the meeting was taking place, UF Police set up barricades to prevent potential protests. About 70 people gathered outside, loudly chanting phrases such as “Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go.”
Dayanna Peek, a third-year UF student, was one of those who gathered outside to protest Sasse’s selection. She said Sasse was a “homophobe” and a “puppet of Ron DeSantis” whose beliefs were not aligned with the university.
“They set up barriers here because they know we’re trying to get in and show our voice, we’re trying to come and show he’s not welcome here,” Peek said. “After this, if he decides to accept, we’re just going to have to protest, constantly protest, and make sure he’s aware that we do not want him here.”
Last year, DeSantis signed a bill that exempted the names of applicants for the presidencies of Florida public universities and colleges from disclosure under public record laws through much of the selection process.
Dr. Lisa Lundy, a professor who served on the search committee, said last month Sasse was the only candidate because other candidates didn’t want to be named publicly unless they were the sole finalist.
“I think the situation was that all of the candidates were in positions that they felt could be compromised if people found that they were in the running for another job,” Lundy said.
Mori Hosseini, chairman of the board of trustees, said other candidates would not have interviewed for the job without the promise of secrecy in the new law.
Following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015, Sasse took the stance that only a man and a woman should get married. Speaking Tuesday, he said the high court’s decision was “the law of the land” and irrelevant to his role atop UF.
According to Dr. David Bloom, a member of the selection committee, Sasse explained his opposition to same-sex marriage by saying he was “supporting his constituency in Nebraska, but he would be supporting the constituency of the faculty, staff, the students at UF if he were to become president.”
CNN’s Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.