University of Florida Trustees Approve Ben Sasse as School’s Next President

The sitting U.S. senator from Nebraska addressed concerns raised by students and faculty during Tuesday's board of trustees meeting.

Published November 2, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
University of Florida Trustees Approve Ben Sasse as School’s Next President
Photo by Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post / Getty Images

  • U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse will soon replace current University of Florida President Kent Fuchs.
  • Florida's board of governors must still approve the nomination.
  • University of Florida students and faculty voiced opposition to his candidacy before the board of trustees meeting.

The University of Florida's (UF) board of trustees on Tuesday voted to name Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse as its next president.

The senator's journey to the presidency has been rocky, but trustees during the Tuesday meeting reiterated that Sasse was the ideal candidate among dozens to lead the university.

Trustees unanimously voted in favor of Sasse, including members representing students and faculty.

Florida's board of governors, the State University System of Florida's governing body, will meet Nov. 10 for the final step in Sasse's approval process.

During the meeting, trustees questioned Sasse on concerns that have been raised since he was named the sole finalist for the position.

Here are some key takeaways from the board's interview:

A Pledge to Abandon Partisan Politics

Many who opposed Sasse's nomination for UF's top position said they would have an issue with any candidate from the world of politics.

Trustee Richard Cole during his closing remarks said that he was initially hesitant to bring a politician into the role.

Sasse seemingly assuaged some of those concerns during Tuesday's interview.

The senator said he would strive for "political celibacy" once confirmed as the university's next president. He added that he looks forward to leaving behind the hyper-political Washington environment to focus on UF.

"I find it super appealing to be able to step back from politics for a time," he said.

Sasse also addressed questions that his candidacy was political from the start. He denied rumors that he was "coached" through the application process by people from the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"I do not think I have had a conversation with or been in a room with Gov. DeSantis since he was a congressman," Sasse said.

He added that while he looks forward to separating himself from partisan politics, he won't be able to avoid politics altogether. Sasse said he'd continue to lobby for state funds on behalf of UF as president, but he would fight against the state politicians in Tallahassee trying to micromanage the university.

"It's because of the independence of this place that the investment [from Tallahassee] produces fruit," he said.

Addressing LGBTQ+ Concerns

Before the meeting, multiple students spoke during public comment to voice their concerns about Sasse's past on LGBTQ+ issues.

Most notably, Sasse reportedly called the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 2015 to uphold the right of same-sex marriage "a disappointment."

Multiple trustees asked how his stance on LGBTQ+ issues might impact his decisions as president. To that, Sasse said he would not roll back any of the progress made on LGBTQ+ equity issues under current President Kent Fuchs.

Some of that progress includes the addition of non-gendered restrooms and health benefits for LGBTQ+ students and staff.

Sasse added that he has spoken with Fuchs about these issues and policies. He also said he would look for ways to expand existing benefits.

Lauren Lemasters, the student representative on the board, said Sasse still must climb a "hill of trust" if he's ever to be accepted by the student body. She said she looks forward to him delivering on his promise to listen to the concerns of students.

"Now, it's up to you to live up to those words," she said.

Renewed Commitment to Workforce Development

It became increasingly clear what attracted the UF board of trustees to Sasse: His vision for the future of higher education.

Sasse continually stressed that the college experience from 30 years ago will no longer suffice 30 years from now. He painted a picture of UF that caters more adeptly to non-traditionally aged students who may be looking to change careers or industries multiple times throughout their lives.

He added that continued investment throughout the state — particularly in South Florida — will be vital to the university's future. Florida is seeing a spike in new residents and businesses, Sasse said. Business leaders need an educated workforce to fill positions; he said this is an area where UF could thrive.

"There is a huge need for a South Florida footprint," he said.

Sasse added that he would like to create partnerships with major corporations to enhance workforce development, like the recently announced partnership between Google and the University of Michigan.

Trustees Address Transparency Concerns

Aside from Sasse's qualifications, many students and faculty voiced concerns over the presidential selection process itself.

In years past, all applicants for an open presidency at a public college or university in Florida would be made public. However, a recently passed law took presidential selections out of public view, which is how the board could supply just one name as a finalist.

Rahul Patel, a trustee and chairman of the search committee, explained that he and the committee spoke in detail with 35 candidates. That list was eventually narrowed down to a top 12 that included nine sitting presidents of R1 research universities.

All finalists were concerned about confidentiality, he said.

They said that if the final list of candidates included more than one name, they would take themselves out of the running.

Board of trustees Chairman Morteza Hosseini said the university would not have had a good pool of candidates to choose from had the board been forced to release more names. None of the final 12 would have stayed in contention.

"It's that simple," Hosseini said.

Some contend that's not a good enough excuse.

UF Graduate Assistants United Co-President Rachel Hartnett said during public comment that the new Florida law does not permit the board of trustees to release a finalists list with only one candidate. The law, Harnett said, requires the university to release the "personally identifying information" of a final group of candidates.

That's similar to what Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, told BestColleges.

Hartnett added that UF Graduate Assistants United plans to take legal action against the university to compel UF to release details on finalists.