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First year of Sasse’s UF presidency leaves some excited, some skeptical

FILE - Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., listens during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. Sasse is the sole finalist to become the president of the University of Florida, the school said Thursday, and the GOP senator has indicated that he will take the job. That means he could resign in the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Ben Sasse made a transition from the U.S. Senate to the president's office at the University of Florida in February 2023. His first year in the position brought spurts of protest followed by an ambitious agenda across campus. (AP file photo)

On Ben Sasse’s first day as president of the University of Florida, he had an enthusiastic message for students, faculty and staff.

“One of my big missions is making sure that UF prepares you to be leaders during a time of disruption and change,” Sasse said in the Feb. 6, 2023, statement. “This is going to be exciting. We’re going to engage ideas, build trust, and sharpen each other.”

Some did not empathize.

That same day, a group of about 100 protesters waited outside his office in Tigert Hall. Megaphones and posters in hand, they hoped to deliver a list of demands to the president.

They wanted Sasse to do five things. Three focused on controversial social justice issues.

They demanded he condemn actions of the Florida Legislature that, they said, infringed on free and academic speech. They insisted that he refused to comply with state action limiting gender-affirming care, racial equity, or freedom of political thought, and maintained all current UF diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives.

A final two demands were that Sasse protected tenure and provided raises to staff, graduate assistants and UF affiliates.

The group failed in their hopes of handing their list directly to the president. Sasse made no appearance.

Instead, they settled for taping their list to the closed office door. They eventually disbanded.

Since then, it’s been quiet in Tigert Hall and on the steps outside. Often, the door to the president’s office is propped open.

Rachel Hartnett, Co-president of UF's Graduate Assistants United, tapes the five demands from protesters on the presidents door Feb. 6, 2023. Over 100 people were in attendance and shouted chants on the frost steps of Tigert Hall. It's unfortunate, we were hoping to talk but he planned his whole day to avoid us, said Hartnett. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)
Rachel Hartnett, co-president of UF's Graduate Assistants United, tapes the five demands from protesters on the president's office door Feb. 6, 2023. Over 100 people showed up and shouted chants on the steps of Tigert Hall. "It's unfortunate, we were hoping to talk but he planned his whole day to avoid us," Hartnett said that day. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

In the past year, Sasse has spelled out his plan for the future of UF in increasing detail. In comparison to his presence on campus on his first day, his hopes, strategies and initiatives have landed softly on the university and its constituents.

Some have developed trust in the president and hope for his term, but others remain worried, waiting, wanting to know who exactly he is.

Oscar Santiago Perez, a past treasurer of the LGBTQ+ Presidential Advisory Committee and past Student Senate president, was among the attendees at the protest.

He had previously spoken against Sasse at the Nov. 1, 2022, UF Board of Trustees meeting when Sasse was approved as the board’s pick for president. He said Sasse’s history of acting as a conservative senator who spoke and voted against pro-LGBTQ+ legislation meant he would need to earn the trust of LGBTQ+ students.

A year into the presidency, his stance is the same.

“Nothing’s really changed,” Perez said. “I haven’t really seen him doing anything that sways my concerns.”

On May 11, 2023, Sasse fulfilled a promise to meet with the committee. Perez was the only student who spoke with the president at the meeting.

“I pretty much told him that if he wanted to gain the confidence and trust of the student body, that it would be a hill to climb, and I just genuinely don’t see him doing anything to help his case. If anything, it’s stayed the same or gotten worse,” Perez said.

He said the committee hasn’t met with Sasse since, and he’d hoped for more engagement.

“We also tried reaching out early in his presidency, and it wasn’t until randomly mid-April that we heard from him,” he said. 

Sasse has not acted on LGBTQ+ issues during his presidency so far, but Perez said his presence on campus has a negative effect on LGBTQ+ students.

“I feel like what most LGBTQ+ students will experience is the environment and the vibe of the campus,” he said. “Having a president who has openly been homophobic in the past probably doesn’t make LGBTQ+ students feel seen.”

A statement from committee co-chairs Dr. Stephanie Bogart, a professor of anthropology, and Dr. Berta Esperanza Hernandez, a professor of law, echoes some of Perez’s thoughts.

“Moving forward,” the statement read in part, “the committee hopes to work with President Sasse and his office on a more frequent basis, as we have done with prior administrations.”

Sasse declined an interview request from WUFT but responded to questions with written statements.

“I have met with the advisory committee,” Sasse wrote. “And I was grateful for the conversation. My message to Gators is always the same: Gator Nation is a community that is built on trust and respect and is aimed at academic excellence.”

Danaya Wright, Faculty Senate chair and law professor, said some faculty had unfounded concerns about Sasse’s handling of LGBTQ+ issues.

“I think there was a great fear, on the part of a lot of faculty, that he would come in and do sort of a purge of the gay faculty, or push people out because of their research interests based on his political viewpoints — he’s not interested in doing that,” she said.

LGBTQ+ issues aren’t the only hot-button topics that have led to problems so far for Sasse.

On Jan. 17, 2024, the Florida Board of Education prohibited diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program funding for schools that are a part of the Florida College System. This fanned a long-standing concern that as a former Republican U.S. Senator, Sasse is a mouthpiece for a broader conservative agenda, and especially for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Alachua County Human Rights Coalition works with campus organizations like Path to Purpose, a program within the Brown Center for Leadership and Service, Calor, a Central American and Latin student organization, Chispas, an immigrant rights group and Gators for Refugee Medical Relief.

Program Director Veronica Robleto said she’s been hearing concerns from faculty about how recent DEI cutbacks are affecting campus.

“I don’t know if it’s just Sasse himself, or Sasse in partnership with the state legislature — what I’ve heard is that people are having to kind of censor a lot of what they say and do for fear of violating new policies and laws around diversity, equity and inclusion,” Robleto said. “In general, it seems a lot more restricted, and people are, unfortunately, self-censoring out of fear.”

But Sasse’s stance on his political past hasn’t changed since the day the board of trustees approved his appointment.

“It would be my plan as I arrived here to take a similar pledge to you all of political celibacy,” he said in the November 2022 board meeting.

And where some associate the president with censorship and restriction, others consider him accepting and supportive.

In the wake of the increasing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the fall, Sasse made efforts to support Jewish students, as demonstrated by an email he sent to Jewish alumni on Oct. 10, 2023.

Leah Weintraub, vice president of Lubavitch Chabad Student Group, said Sasse also attended the vigil held the previous night in support of Israel.

“The message was that he’s with the Jewish community and he supports us, and that’s just a beautiful thing to know — that we’re accepted in the community at UF, especially in this time when there’s so much hate and antisemitism going on in the world," Weintraub said in reference to the email. “It’s great to know that the president of UF supports us.”

Criticism of Sasse hasn’t only been about nationally relevant social justice issues.

On April 10, 2023, The Alligator published an editorial headlined “Paging Dr. Sasse…,” which criticized the president for a lack of engagement with press and the campus community. Fliers with Sasse’s face on them appeared on campus billboards and poles reading “Missing! Have you seen this man?”

UF sophomore and public relations major Amanda Jones said there is still a noticeable difference in that regard between Sasse and his predecessor, Kent Fuchs.

“I remember the last president,” Jones said. “He would go and have, like, free hugs on campus, and I feel like I would see him a lot more on campus. (Sasse) does sell things at games, but he’s not as present, I feel like.”

But Sasse isn’t so concerned about negative press.

“A lot of that coverage was silly. I’m a big fan of the First Amendment — folks can say what they want,” he said in his emailed response. “But I sweat less about press coverage than I do trying to spend time with professors, students, staff and alumni where they are — whether that means co-teaching a class (which I’m doing this spring), slinging Gatorade in the stands at The Swamp, going to faculty conferences, joining the audience at UF cultural events or just high-fiving students at Gator basketball games.”

Sasse said media is overly dependent on controversy.

“Real life here in Gainesville is too interesting for that kind of manufactured outrage stuff,” he wrote.

Wright, the Faculty Senate chair, said Sasse’s administration started off trying to understand the community — not intentionally ignoring people.

“This is like a small country,” Wright said. “It is an enormous and complicated institution, and I think it’s probably a lot more complicated than he realized. So, I think his first few months were spent just really trying to get a handle on all of the moving parts and pieces.”

Faculty Senate Chair Danaya Wright works in her Tigert Hall office. (Julia Lejnar/WUFT News)
Faculty Senate Chair Danaya Wright works in her Tigert Hall office. She said concerns over Sasse pushing out faculty based on sexual orientation or political viewpoints were overblown. "He’s not interested in doing that," she said. (Julia Lejnar/WUFT News)

Faculty were uncertain and a little bit anxious at first, she said, but Sasse has been receptive to their needs, and they’re building trust.

Sasse held private meetings with faculty in August to discuss his strategic vision. 

On Aug. 23, 2023, The Alligator published an article quoting an anonymous faculty member as saying Sasse intended to reduce the amount of departments and eliminate “quiet retirees,” a term for tenured faculty who cease teaching or researching at previously productive levels. The next day, the president clarified his stance on faculty efficiency in a statement.

“In many of my conversations, I have heard faculty tell me that a significant portion of their colleagues have ‘quietly retired.’ I want to be clear: that’s something you — our faculty — have repeated to me,” he said. “I'd never heard the term before. But having spoken with most of our colleges, I have heard it many times. We can and must do better.”

In the statement, Sasse said UF needed “understandable metrics to hold ourselves accountable.” 

Sasse and his administration said they’ve made progress toward establishing a better internal review system over the past year.

“The UF Provost’s Office is nearing the finish line on a post-tenure review system that I see as a hugely positive step for our faculty community and for our students,” Sasse said. “In a nutshell, this is an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable to our students, to our colleagues, to our disciplines, and to the folks who pay our bills.”

Wright said he’s successfully walking the line between making major changes and gaining trust.

“I do think he’s doing (his) due diligence to try to figure out what’s happening and where the concerns are, where the pain points are, where the nerves and anxiety rest with regard to faculty,” she said. “He works incredibly hard. He’s up at four in the morning seven days a week meeting with people, trying to figure things out.”

Wright said some faculty are impatient with Sasse and offended that he hasn’t come talk to them. But he’s “like a whirlwind. He’s so busy doing things.”

 Overall, things have settled down between Sasse and faculty, Wright said. He’s begun to prove that he cares about faculty concerns. He’s taking action in a way past administrations haven’t, she said.

According to Wright, a major concern for faculty is the heavy burden of administrative processes required to get things done.

She said Sasse jumped right in to try to help.
“He gave me McKinsey consultants,” Wright said. “We have set up action teams. He’s basically told all the senior administrators that we’re going to improve the faculty's life.”

On March 31, 2023, Sasse released a statement explaining his plan in the form of five major initiatives. He wants to see research expanded, students prepared for an incoming technological transformation, faculty better paid, partnerships increased and the process streamlined, fiscal transparency deepened and viewpoints diversified.

His proudest accomplishment at UF so far is “joining faculty, staff, students, leaders and thinkers across our team to begin building the foundation for some big, meaningful change,” he said.

Sasse said successes include learning how the student experience can be improved, the creation of 40 new research projects, progress in creating a UF center for graduate education in Jacksonville and building UF’s teaching and research team.

James Gadsby, past president of the UF Alumni Association, said the most exciting thing about the presidency so far is seeing Sasse’s vision and strategy come together.

He’s invested in Sasse’s “10x10x10” plan: reaching 10 top-10 programs within 10 years.

“When the Gator nation sets its mind to something, it achieves it,” Gadsby said.

He’s looking forward to the president being more visible and hearing more of Sasse’s plans.

With regard to criticism and concern over the first year of his presidency, Gadbsy said Sasse’s intentions are not sinister. 

“He doesn’t want anyone to be fearful at UF,” he said. “It is a journey, and the desire is that everyone feels valued and safe to engage.”

Gadsby said he sat down with Sasse during his first week at UF. One of the things he told Sasse was that having conversations with different groups would be one of the most important things he could do.

“I hope he’ll continue to collaborate and work with all the student organizations,” Gadsby said.

Sasse, meanwhile, said he’s just getting started.
“UF is a big, beautiful, diverse place of 86,000 souls,” Sasse said.“It takes time to meet folks, sit down with groups, break bread together and become a familiar face.”

The door to the president's office during Ben Sasse's tenure at the University of Florida is often propped open. (Julia Lejnar/WUFT News)
The door to the president's office during Ben Sasse's tenure at the University of Florida is often propped open. (Julia Lejnar/WUFT News)

Julia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing
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