On Thursday, October 6, the University of Florida presidential search committee nominated sitting Republican Senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, as the unanimous finalist for the UF presidency. Regardless of background, most students at the university felt shock and distaste at the results of the presidential selection committee.
“I was surprised. I think it’s safe to say that universities are progressive environments, so to have a sitting republican senator not just the last standing candidate but unanimously voted in, I would say I was shocked,” University of Florida senior Matthew Turner said.
After the initial shock subsided, many students felt a duty to protest. Over 300 students marched into Sasse’s interview with the University of Florida board at Emerson Alumni Hall on Monday, October 10. University of Florida sophomore Aron Ali-McClory, one of many organizers of the protest, said that the board’s choice felt like “a stab and twist into our hearts by the University.” To explore why, we will look at the common complaints that UF students have about Ben Sasse, and their outlooks on a possible future with their new potential president.
His values harm marginalized groups
The first and most glaring complaint relates to Sasse’s record of derogatory comments toward several marginalized communities. These include the LGBTQ+, women and Chinese communities. Specifically, Sasse commented that the 2015 SCOTUS case Obergefell v. Hodges disappointed him, and he still lists “the sanctity of marriage” as one of the top issues on his campaign website. He also introduced pro-life legislation into Congress, such as the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, prompting women on campus to fear how he may target reproductive rights as a president.
“You look back in this guy’s record and it’s like almost every marginalized positionality is offended by his opinions,” University of Florida senior Kayla Casillas said.
“A lot of students and professors that are a part of those communities feel threatened and scared,” University of Florida junior Lily Kalandjian said. “A lot of professors will feel that their integrity will be threatened, that they will not be able to teach to their expertise.”
All of this becomes more important when considering the history of UF, and the presidents with the LGBTQ+ community. Most infamously, President John Wayne Reitz collaborated with the Johns Committee in the late 1950s, a committee dedicated to identifying, targeting and expulsing students/faculty who identified as homosexual. The lack of administrative support for those faculty means significant animosity between UF administration and the community that still exists today. Such an example goes to show the significant power that a university president can have in this respect.
Unfairness in the process
While Florida Law SB520 currently conceals the identities of over 700 candidates that the search committee considered nationwide, at least nine of the other candidates currently sit as presidents at other major research institutions, according to the Gainesville Sun. Given the large pool of candidates, students thought that the committee would choose many finalists.
“We were told that the search committee was going to be providing us a list of about 10-15 candidates,” Kalandjian said. The search committee, however, only released Sasse’s name. Students find it unfair that they only chose one among many other committees.
“When you look at the university’s guidelines, they themselves are breaking their own rules,” Ali-McClory said. “They said they would announce two or more finalists. Not only is it not fair to the university community that they announced only one finalist, but it’s not fair to themselves and to the people that expect them to follow their own rules.”
Even Florida lawmaker Jeff Brandes, who proposed SB520 in the Florida legislature, agrees that the university did not use the candidate anonymity that this law provides as intended. The point of secrecy in this matter, according to the Tampa Bay Times, ensures that any search committee considers high quality candidates without putting their current jobs into jeopardy. However, the university distorted the law. According to Brandes, the law always intended for search committees to release multiple finalists, not just one.
He does not come from Florida
The University of Florida has a significant impact on the local community. Students compromise almost 40% of the population of Gainesville. 52,367 students attend UF, not considering faculty or other workers, and 133,611 people live in the city of Gainesville. Any president of UF needs to understand how much the president impacts not just on the student body, but Gainesville as a whole. Some students believe that someone from a state over 1,000 miles away will not understand the needs of the community.
“I think that it is a big issue,” Kalandjian said. “Sasse will not understand what we have here at UF. Most of the students here are from Florida. He hadn’t even been to Gainesville until his interviews this last Monday [October 10]. He has never lived in Florida and is coming to a community that he doesn’t know that much about.”
Others, however, see this as a non-issue. Turner points out the problem with this argument, “The way that I see it, a lot of people that were being considered for the presidency were from out of state as well. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that someone has to be from Florida and be raised here to be qualified to be president of a Florida university.”
Turner’s argument in this case holds significant merit. Current UF president Kent Fuchs comes from Oklahoma, went to Duke University and taught at the University of Illinois, none of his experience is in Florida. Many other university presidents in Florida, such as President Richard D. McCullough who serves at Florida State University and President Alexander Cartwright in the University of Central Florida, come from states outside of Florida as well. The way in which coming from other state impacts the local community is another matter, but university presidents come from outside state doesn’t look like something new.
He lacks qualifications
Sasse holds a doctoral degree in American History from Yale University, and he also taught at the University of Texas. Before becoming a senator, Sasse presided over Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska from 2010-2014. Still, students feel that these qualifications make Sasse unfit for the UF presidency. Many point to his tenure as president of Midland University as reason for this, which only has a student population of 1,600 and commands nowhere near the $960 million research budget that UF does.
“Even if you are the perfect senator, good legislator, good manager, knowledge of politics and ability to move your way around complex situations, those skills when transferred to higher education are completely different,” Ali-McClory said. “Even though the two have a lot of interconnections, they are completely different jobs.”
While some like Ali-McClory believe that the skills of a U.S. Senator do not exactly transfer to a university president, Turner believes otherwise, “I think that being a senator speaks to the qualifications that he has. Not everyone is a senator. It takes a lot of skills to make it to that point.”
While true, students expected someone with experience similar to current President Kent Fuchs. Previously, Fuchs taught and researched electrical engineering, worked as provost of Cornell University, and he has held a long and reputable career in academia. Many students expected someone with similar qualifications. Instead, students feel disillusioned that a politician, not a longstanding academic, fills his shoes.
UF and diversity
Two main issues are at stake – among many others – for the next president of UF. The first involves UF efforts to make diversity and inclusion core pillars of the university. Taking into consideration of Sasse’s views on the LGBTQ community, students feel that he will harm these efforts as president.
“Point blank, he is going to harm these efforts that UF has made toward inclusion. A lot of folks who belong to these marginalized communities have openly criticized the university for not doing enough already,” Ali-McClory said. “So, when you bring someone like senator Sasse, who has this history of making derogatory comments towards these communities, and pursuing legislation that will hurt these communities, how can we expect that he’s going to come in and make our situation better? By showing his political hand, he has revealed that his morals and values are extremely antithetical to any idea of inclusion or diversity.”
Another UF student Casillas provides a similar thought, “He’s going to have a ton of executive privilege. He’s going to be able in some ways to alter the culture and the type of ethos that surrounds the organizations within the institution of UF.”
On the contrary, many believe that Sasse won’t put as much of a hand into diversity and inclusion affairs as most students think, since a university president only possesses limited power. One man cannot change so much without authorization from university bureaucracy. With many resistances against how a university feels about diversity, a president who does not agree with these ideas may not actively oppose them out of respect for public opinion.
“I don’t think he’ll necessarily have a big impact on those goals. I think that a lot of people think he’s going to come in as some sort of dictator and force his political preferences, make people abide by any opinions he might have, and that’s just not true.” Turner said. “His powers are going to be very limited. He’s going to be working with a board of people that have different ideas than him that will ultimately come together and make a very beneficial environment for UF.”
UF and the state government
In recent years, the university has clashed with the government on many issues, including academic freedom, COVID policies and political interference within the academic institution. With a president who shares many political ideas as current governor of Florida Ron Desantis, some see such a president may mitigate these tensions. Some, though, don’t see this the same way.
“I think that if the state government has objections and concerns with the university then those won’t necessarily be alleviated because a Republican is president,” Turner said. “I think that if Ben Sasse acts as a neutral figure without a political platform, then the issues that the state government has with UF will still persist.”
“I think it’s better that the university has as contentious as a relationship with the state government as possible,” Ali-McClory said. “The more that the state government is able to exert its will on the university, a power which would certainly be increased by the appointment of Sasse to the presidency, the more would be worse. That means you have less academic freedom, less inclusion, more students in marginalized communities who are in danger and that don’t feel safe.”
Others, like Ali-McClory, think poorly on UF building a better relationship with the state. On the other hand, some feel that the state obtains too much power within the university through organizations such as Florida Blue Key and student government. Recent controversies also affect these opinions. The University of Florida just barred several professors to testify against the state of Florida last year. This context in mind, some students feel that a better relationship with the state government might just lead to more interference within university affairs.
Campus-wide unity and resistance
UF student Turner shared that many students feel unified in their opposition toward Sasse, “A lot of conservatives are against Sasse becoming president because he was in favor of Donald Trump’s impeachment for January 6. So, a lot of them disagree with that vote and don’t think that he’ll be a good fit as president. You see a strange unity on campus between most of the progressive and some of the conservative students on campus.”
“What I really love is how the UF community has come together,” Casillas said. “I think that, between the protests we saw against Ben Sasse and also the SG election – our campus and our student body is coming together like never before. At least, not in a long time. I think it’s great to see everybody speaking up under one unified voice.”
Regardless of the contention over how Sasse’s presidency will play out, a bright optimism shines in the eyes of students who will continue to resist in spite of all odds. Young Democratic Socialists of America plans further protests for Sasse’s UF Board of Trustees meetings on November 1. In light of the previous protest, President Fuchs issued a statement prohibiting protests within campus buildings during these meetings. We can only speculate as to how Sasse’s presidency, not even begun but already mired in controversy, will play out.