Protesters crowded into Emerson Hall on Monday and chanted together as they climbed the stairs and gathered around the President’s Ballroom where Republican Sen. Ben Sasse was speaking.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho. Ben Sasse has got to go,” they shouted.
The protesters filled the entire staircase and most of the second-floor balcony. When attendees of the UF students open forum began to leave the room, more than 300 protesters moved in.
Sasse had already left the room, but protest leaders leapt onto the stage to sit on the table where he’d addressed faculty and students during two forums.
The protests came four days after the UF’s presidential search committee unanimously recommended Sasse as the lone finalist to become the 13th president in school history. Monday marked Sasse’s first official visit to the campus.
“I fully recognize that the responsibility of being a servant leader and a team member at an institution as complex as this is a celebratory role for the big and broad, diverse set of initiatives that happen here. And it’s a very different calling than the calling I have right now,” Sasse said in prepared remarks. “I’ve obviously had to take positions on a lot of federal policy and political issues that won’t align with the views of everybody in this room or everybody in this campus.”
The first of three scheduled forums started at 1:15 p.m. with faculty, staff and students able to submit questions online. Because of the protests, the third forum was livestreamed.
While Sasse answered questions during the first two forums, protesters gathered in the square outside the building to list their grievances against Sasse, the UF board of trustees and Governor Ron DeSantis.
Signs enumerated the points.
One read: “700 candidates or ONE corrupt board?” Others said: “UF hates Ben Sasse,” “Bye bye Top Five” and “Ben the fascist.”
Soon the protest moved inside, and once the protesters controlled the President’s Ballroom, Aron Ali-McClory, chair of the UF Young Democratic Socialists of America, stated their demands.
The group wants Sasse to resign from the nomination, a transparent process for the presidential nomination, a full list of the 11 other finalists and for the Florida Legislature to repeal House Bill 7, otherwise known the Stop Woke Act.
As Ali-McClory listed demands, cries of “F*** fascism” and “F*** DeSantis” would burst out, and everyone repeated the refrain. Other rallying cries included “No justice, no peace” and “Get the f*** out of our swamp.”
As one megaphone-wielding leader put it: “He won’t want this job if we make him miserable.”
One student removed the giant “5” statue—signifying UF’s nationwide ranking, according to U.S. News & World Report—from the stage and placed it sideways on the floor, leading at least one couple to take their pictures with it.
The leaders called Sasse’s nomination a political appointment and said he would be a pawn of DeSantis along with the board of trustees.
One sign asked, “Where were you on Jan. 6, 2022?” Meanwhile, students banged on the double doors leading to Sasse while yelling “Let us in” as UF police officers stood guard. Others searched for an alternative route to the third floor.
Speakers called Sasse homophobic, and one protester said Sasse couldn’t distinguish between the Chinese government and Chinese citizens. The protester said Chinese faculty were scared of Sasse’s stance on foreign citizens.
Just an hour earlier, Sasse had addressed that very question along with others concerning climate change, LGBTQ+ inclusion and his votes while representing Nebraska in the Senate.
Sasse said his role as a senator includes elements that wouldn’t transfer over into the role as UF president.
“I fully recognize that the responsibility of being a servant leader and a team member on an incident at an institution as complex as this is a celebratory role for the big and broad, diverse set of initiatives that happen here,” Sasse said in his opening remarks. “And it’s a very different calling than the calling I have right now.”
As a senator, he said he’s had to take a stance on cultural and political issues that will differ from some people at UF. But he said that he looks forward to leaving political issues behind in order to return to “consensus building.”
“The reality is, I think most of this job is a very different thing than the political aspects of the job I’ve just had, and I want to assure you that I’m well aware of those differentiated roles,” Sasse said.
As for the issues raised on the signs, Sasse covered some of them.
Sasse said he opposed the Chinese Communist Party for its forced sterilization and genocide of the country’s Uyghur minority. He also said American companies must be careful when dealing with Chinese companies because information that runs to a seemingly private Chinese company ends up in the hands of the government.
However, he said UF should recruit across the globe to pull in the best talent possible, including Chinese scholars.
“We want a welcoming population for students of every background, every ethnicity, every nationality,” Sasse said. “This should be a welcoming community because we need it and because it’s the right thing to do. But also, because, frankly, there’s too much talent out there that we would be overlooking if we were not recruiting people and scholars and partners from everywhere on the globe.”
Sasse also addressed questions whether he would seek to eliminate tenure. Sasse said tenure is valuable at an institution like UF and he would preserve it.
“I will be a zealous defender of tenure,” he said. “Tenure is an incredibly important tool inside a large research university, like this.”
The questions pointed back to steps he took while president of Midland University, a small Christian liberal arts institution in Nebraska. But Sasse said UF differs from Midland because it is a large, complex research institution, not a small teaching-centric institution.
Although Sasse is a conservative member of the GOP, he said he holds different views than other Republicans on some issues—a fact highlighted by former President Donald Trump’s criticism of his potential appointment. (Sasse was one of seven Republicans who voted with Democrats to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.)
When asked about climate change, Sasse affirmed his belief in climate change and the role humans play in it. He said UF should be on the forefront of battling climate change through research, finding ways to mitigate impacts.
Where Sasse’s view might differ with some, he said would be on federal regulation. Sasse said a centrally planned roadmap from Washington, D.C., won’t solve the climate change problem.
“I think the only way we’re actually going to see it succeed at reducing the human role in climate change is through a lot more innovation, and I think that’s going to require a dynamic U.S. economy,” Sasse said.
Another question targeted Sasse’s views on LGBTQ+ issues, asking if he would undermine protections for people under that umbrella.
“Let me just begin by saying I believe deeply in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every single person, and I believe in creating a culture and a community of inclusivity,” Sasse said.
Sasse added that he’d like to meet with the LGBTQ+ Presidential Advisory Group to learn what is happening on campus, what metrics are being used to measure inclusivity, and what the university can improve it.
The board of trustees will consider Sasse’s appointment on Nov. 1. If selected, Sasse would replace current president Kent Fuchs, who announced last January that he will step down at the end of the year.