Sen. Sasse, ‘sole finalist’ in UF presidential search, to lead Florida’s flagship university

By: and - November 1, 2022 1:56 pm

Sen. Ben Sasse answers questions from the University of Florida’s Board of Trustees before they vote on him to serve as UF’s next president on Nov. 1, 2022. (Screenshot/University of Florida)

OMAHA — The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday unanimously offered Nebraska’s U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse the job as its 13th president.

Sasse has one final hurdle to clear on Nov. 10, when the UF Board of Governors will vote on his annual contract of up to $1.6 million. (The Senate pays less than $200,000.)

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts or his successor will select the state’s next U.S. senator. The Secretary of State’s Office has said the governor has 45 days from a vacancy to fill the job.

There was little chance Sasse would be rebuffed after getting this far. Fourteen of the 17 UF trustees are appointed by the governor, a seat held by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Trustees embrace Sasse

The lingering question was what the board’s faculty representative, Amanda Phalin, would do. The UF Faculty Senate voted last week to express no confidence in the process that named Sasse, a former president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb., the lone finalist.

Phalin said Tuesday she was confident after talking to Sasse and others involved in the selection process that Sasse would be able to overcome faculty and student concerns. 

Protesting students last month cut short Sasse’s first public appearances on campus. Many objected to his previous comments about LGBTQ rights, including marriage.

Sasse argued then and again this week that he would work to keep the university inclusive. Phalin said she found his arguments persuasive. 

The crowd on Tuesday was calm, but campus leaders had notified students and staff that the school would be enforcing decades-old prohibitions on indoor protests on campus.

When Sasse was approved, some in the crowd cheered and some shouted disapproval.

One objector said, “F— you Mori (Hosseini),” referring to the chairman of the board. Another said, “This whole process is bulls—.” A third said, “This is a farce.”

Sasse’s pitch

Sasse, near the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, expressed gratitude and said his family was excited to get to campus. In a statement afterward, he focused on the job ahead.

He shared with Florida trustees some of the same big-picture themes he has spoken about during his time in the Senate, including the changing nature of work.

He said the University of Florida could lead higher education in preparing students for job and career disruption to come from technology, including artificial intelligence.

“I am grateful for the Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote and for their endorsement of our shared vision to make the University of Florida a world-changing institution and a pioneer in higher education,” Sasse said in the UF statement. “Education is about learning how to humbly and meaningfully engage with new ideas. We want Gators to engage ideas.”

A Sasse staffer said he was unlikely to have a separate comment Tuesday for Nebraska media. They said he would likely wait until after the Nov. 10 meeting.

Higher education experts described Sasse’s last step as a formality once the two sides settle on a contract. Sasse would then decide when to resign from the Senate and when to start at UF.

Staff have said previously that if Sasse got the job he would likely resign in late November or early December.

Tuesday’s vote came after public testimony and a lengthy question-and-answer session on the future of higher education, academic freedom, tenure and student and staff concerns.

Many questions concerned the senator’s political views and worries about an air of secrecy around the search process for a university president. 

Sasse told the trustees he would practice “political celibacy” when it comes to partisan politics leading up to his UF presidency.

“So I would have no activity in partisan politics in any way as I arrive at the University of Florida,” Sasse said. “I wouldn’t speak at political events. I wouldn’t make political contributions, partisan political contributions. I wouldn’t surrogate for or assist any candidates.”

Crowd reaction

UF Board of Trustee member Richard Cole said he had been hesitant to name a politician as president of the university, but was no longer. 

“I had been in school here when we did that twice, and I didn’t think it was probably the right thing at the right time,” Cole said. “But you’ve overcome that for me. I hope you will for them. I strongly support this nomination. I think it will do terrific job. I really do.”

UF graduate student Bryn Taylor said the process reeked of political meddling that had once again made the university “a laughingstock of the academic community.”

“For people obsessed with the (top 5) ranking so much, surprisingly little thought seems to be put in how in choosing a politician with more experience taking away people’s rights of being in a classroom will affect our status,” she said.

Next steps

Ricketts declined to comment about Tuesday’s developments. A spokeswoman said he would stick to his pledge to say nothing until Sasse’s status has changed.

Political observers have speculated that Ricketts wants the job. The governor has said that if he pursues it, he would leave the appointment up to his successor. 

GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent who was backed by Ricketts for the nomination, said Tuesday that he remains focused on winning his race. 

Pillen has not said how he might pick a successor. 

“This is simply one step in the confirmation process to become president of the university,” Pillen said, noting that Sasse still has to sign a contract.

State Sen. Carol Blood, Nebraska’s Democratic nominee for governor, has said she would choose a placeholder senator for two years, someone who doesn’t want to run for re-election.

“I will accept applications for the appointment and select the person whom I feel will work in the most nonpartisan fashion (and) will agree to not run for re-election so they can concentrate on the work at hand,” she said. 

The office, she said, belongs to Nebraskans, so it should be theirs to decide. The seat would be up for election to a full term in 2024, if it opens in November or December.

Ricketts, a Republican, would be unlikely to let the seat fall into the Democratic Party’s hands if Pillen were to lose, political observers said.

Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb said voters have a choice to make at the ballot box. She said voters who want someone who will “represent our state with dignity” should vote for Blood for governor. If they want Ricketts as senator, “Pillen is your guy.” 

The Nebraska Republican Party did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

This article includes reporting from the Florida Phoenix, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom Network. Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel also contributed to this report.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.