Union Leader: ‘Very Clear’ Sasse Not Welcomed as University of Florida Presidential Candidate

The president of the United Faculty of Florida explains why he — and many students — resent the fact that U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse is the sole finalist to be the school's next president.
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  • The University of Florida put forth just one finalist as a candidate in its presidential search.
  • That finalist was Ben Sasse, a Republican U.S. senator representing Nebraska since 2015.
  • Sasse previously led a small Lutheran university in Nebraska as president before becoming a senator.
  • His nomination was met with protests from students and faculty at UF.

A sitting senator is the sole finalist for president at one of the country's most prestigious universities, much to the dismay of many students and faculty.

The board of trustees at the University of Florida (UF) has just one candidate to consider to be its next president: U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who has represented Nebraska in Congress since 2015. This is the most high-profile presidential search since Florida changed its sunshine laws. Now, it is no longer necessary to publicly share the names of all applicants and candidates during searches.

Students and faculty met the announcement with fervent protest.

Protesters surrounded the building where Sasse held his first on-campus visit to field questions from faculty, staff, and students on Oct. 10. Among their top issues with the senator: his record on LGBTQ+ issues.

The university responded by announcing it would enforce a ban on indoor protests in advance of the Nov. 1 board of trustees meeting at which the board is expected to vote on Sasse's nomination.

To understand why there has been so much opposition to Sasse as the lone finalist to be the next president of the University of Florida, BestColleges connected with one of the senator's most vocal critics — Andrew Gothard, Ph.D., president of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), which represents over 25,000 faculty members at all 12 Florida public universities and 16 state and community colleges.

BestColleges: Before we talk about Sasse as a finalist, what are your thoughts on the selection process and the fact that only one finalist was announced?

I can say right off the bat that we are deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in the selection process.

When the presidential search bill was passed by the Florida Legislature this past session, I testified before the committee along with several UFF members. We called and let legislators know … that if this bill passed and allowed search committees to take the full list of candidates out of the Florida sunshine (laws)… it would lead to exactly this scenario where political appointees with very little or no higher education experience would be shoehorned into these positions.

In one way, we see this as part of the inevitable plan on the part of the Florida Legislature and (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis. But on the other hand, the university was not forced to put forward only one candidate. They could have put forward a final pool of candidates, and we believe they are actually required to provide the personally identifying information of a pool of candidates.

We will be taking action on this very soon.

BC: Do you worry that politicians being chosen for higher education positions will become a trend?

This is absolutely the blueprint coming to fruition, and we believe this is what every university search is going to look like, even though we're going to fight it tooth and nail every time it happens.

BC: Can politicians serving as college presidents work, as many believe was the case with President John Thrasher at Florida State University?

There is no indication that Ben Sasse's presidency at UF would ever be accepted the way that John Thrasher's was because of the secrecy of the search process.

And because of [Sasse's] background. If we look at his actions when he was in the Senate, he has a really, really bad record with LGBTQ+ issues, which leads faculty and students of those protected groups wondering if their voices are going to be heard or if they're going to be marginalized. There are many Chinese American faculty who are also concerned.

And if we look at his record at the small college where he was previously, our understanding is that he took that opportunity as president to absolutely gut tenure. The record that that place has now is that many of [its] faculty are adjuncts and have no job security.

BC: How do you see the next couple of weeks and months playing out? What is the likelihood he will be the next president of UF?

I would be interested to see if Sen. Sasse still wants to be the president of the University of Florida when it has been made very clear that he is not welcome in the university community.

Because he does not have a solid or clear record that we can point to — a long career in academia — all we can look at are his political leanings and his votes and his statements while in office. All of those point to someone who is not going to be the best fit for the University of Florida.

So it will be interesting to see if he stays in the race or if he withdraws. He's got a lot of ground to cover and a big hill to climb if he wants to find any acceptance at that institution.

My personal belief and our belief as an organization is that they need to walk this back and they need to find a group of candidates to put forward. If they genuinely believe that Sen. Sasse is the best candidate out there, then they should have no qualms about putting him out with a group of four or five other highly qualified candidates.

BC: What's the more likely outcome: Sasse pulling out or the board deciding to put forth more final candidates?

The University of Florida board of trustees has made it very clear that they're going to do whatever they're told by Tallahassee.

Now, whether Sen. Sasse pulls out is a different question. If you can't convince … the higher education community and the Gainesville community that he can do the job and that he's the best fit, I don't see why he would want to come to Gainesville and the University of Florida.

The reception he is going to see over time is the same reception he's had so far. The main image of him right now that's circulating in the media is him fleeing out the back of a building in a cop car, as opposed to staying, listening, and trying to converse with the students that were there to protest his views on LGBTQ+ issues.

If we were talking about an array of candidates whose primary background and interest and responsibilities had been in higher education, then I firmly believe that this kind of protest and this frustration wouldn't be happening. We'd be performing a higher education search focused on higher education issues. But when you [nominate] a politician … then the conversation has to be about these larger social issues.

BC: The Stop WOKE Act is a hot topic in higher education in Florida right now. Do you have confidence Sen. Sasse would uphold academic freedom at UF?

No, not at this time.

In fact, because he is purely a political appointee, our belief would be more strongly founded in the idea that he will hold fast to whatever Gov. DeSantis and his supporters in the Legislature tell him to do.

BC: If the board had released five finalists, one of which was Sasse and the other were higher education officials, is there anything that would have stopped it from still choosing Sasse? Or do you think the backlash would have made it untenable?

I think the latter, but we'd have to see who the other candidates are.

As the bare minimum, we believe that if they believe Sasse was the most qualified candidate and not just a political appointee who will kiss the ground that Gov. DeSantis walks on, then they should feel very comfortable bringing an array of candidates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.