Sasse becomes new UF president-elect

The UF Board of Trustees unanimously voted Sen. Ben Sasse as UF's 13th President. on Tuesday.
The UF Board of Trustees unanimously voted Sen. Ben Sasse as UF's 13th President. on Tuesday. (Photo by Seth Johnson)
Photo by Seth Johnson

Sen. Ben Sasse received unanimous approval from the UF Board of Trustees on Tuesday to become the university’s 13th president, taking over for outgoing president Kent Fuchs.  

The board also authorized Chair Mori Hosseini to enter negotiations with Sasse on a total compensation package not to exceed $1.6 million. The result of those talks will go before the board of governors in the next step for Sasse. That meeting is scheduled for Nov. 10.  

The 13-0 Tuesday vote comes after a previous unanimous vote by UF’s Selection Committee to nominate Sasse as the sole finalist in a search that involved more than 700 applicants and numerous current presidents of top research institutions.  

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But the nomination brought backlash from students and faculty, targeting both the selection process and Sasse. UF’s Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the selection process on Thursday.  

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board and Sasse addressed some of the circulating critiques. Hosseini said UF has followed a well-trodden path in higher education.  

“Finally, I would also note that our process is no different than the other top public universities in the county,” Hosseini said.  

He listed multiple other universities who only publicly announced one nomination for president before confirmation—UC Berkley in 2017, UCLA in 2006, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2022, University of Virginia in 2017, UNC Chapel Hill in 2019 and UC San Diego in 2012.  

Hosseini said the only public top 10 university to put forward more than one candidate was the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  

Hosseini tasked the presidential selection committee to bring a once-in-a-generation leader, and many of the trustees said Sasse fit the bill. Vice Chair Tom Kuntz compared him and Fuchs, praising their integrity, passion for the job, vision of the future and willingness to listen.  

“Given where we are now as a university, for us to move into that top echelon, we need a visionary, an innovator, a big thinker and transformative leader,” said Rahul Patel, head of the search committee. “Ben Sasse is our transformative candidate.” 

The meeting contrasted with Sasse’s first official visit to Gainesville on Oct. 17 for a series of open forums. On Tuesday barriers and metal detectors greeted attendees, along with a clear bag policy and police officers.  

UF Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini on Tuesday.
Photo by Seth Johnson UF Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini on Tuesday.

On Oct. 10, the open forums had no barriers to entry, allowing around 300 protesters to clog Emerson Alumni Hall and take over the meeting room. On Tuesday, a smaller number of protesters gathered outside, and a few joined the meeting with two holding protest signs on their lap in the back.  

Sasse also hit on a willingness to listen. In his first month, he said he anticipates opening up to anyone who has an idea for the university’s future. He wants to hear everything on campus. After that first month, Sasse said he would want to continue the listening tour at UF’s facilities across the state.  

The trustees each asked Sasse questions and hit on areas of public concern like his political activity, stance on China, attitude toward LGBTQ persons and vision for UF.  

Sasse said he looks forward to stepping back from politics and even cutting ties. He said he will take a vow of political celibacy if he is elected.  

“The president's job is to go out and be chief storyteller, fan and salesperson for all the people that we want to come to this place and all the people that we want to invest in what we're doing in this place,” Sasse said.  

He said it’s good for the community to know that he isn't a partisan figure as president. Sasse also said that he had no ties to the Florida governor’s office and had not been in contact with Gov. Ron DeSantis or his office.  

Some students expressed political fears that Sasse would become a pawn of DeSantis or bring positions he advocated for in Washington, D.C., to UF. Protesters on Oct. 10 highlighted his vote against LGBTQ rights and comments on China.  

Amanda Phalin, faculty senate chair, said Fuchs had supported the LGBTQ community though changes on campus that stakeholders rely on. She asked if Sasse would do the same.  

Sasse said his record on LGBTQ issues on campus—gender-neutral bathrooms, transgender healthcare options, domestic partner benefits—would mirror that of Fuchs during his time.  

He also clarified his position on Chinese students and faculty. The question came up at a previous faculty forum, and Sasse expressed his frustration at not being able to get his position across.  

Sasse said UF wants talent from all over the world, including China. He said his problem is with those in China who prop up the Communist Party and its crimes against humanity.  

“We want more and all students of every background, view, ethnicity and national origin to want to study in this special community,” Sasse said.  

He grounded his vision of UF’s future in four ideas: technological disruption makes education more important and lifelong, the way to stay relevant in 30 years will require vast change, UF sits as the most interesting institution in the most economically dynamic state and a transition will take 12-18 months.  

Sasse said many institutions of higher education contently rest on their accolades, but he said the ground will shift in the coming decades. UF needs to adapt and be nimble in preparation, he said.  

At the same time, he said faculty and students should not fear wholesale pivots at the start of his administration. Sasse said UF is already in position to adapt with both well-established programs and a large blank canvas for new initiatives. 

The coming changes can cause fear, Sasse said, but also opportunity. At UF, Sasse said he sensed more excitement about the opportunity than fear of the changes.   

Editor's note -- This story has been updated.

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