During his chance to speak before he had to flee from protestors, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse tried to assure faculty that he is the right person to become president of the University of Florida.
The Faculty Senate forum in Emerson Hall on Monday was a chance for Sasse to correct his record in his own words under the skepticism by students and faculty surrounding his pick as UF’s sole presidential candidate.
Sasse was also supposed to meet with UF staff at 3:45 p.m., but he was forced to go virtual because protestors occupied the Emerson Hall ballroom, where the first forum was hosted.
During a portion in which anonymous, pre-selected questions were asked and a brief period offered for audience input, academic freedom resurfaced throughout the forum. About 100 people attended in person, with more watching a online livestream.
Amanda Phalin, a UF board of trustees member and chair of the Faculty Senate, read a question asking what actions Sasse would take to preserve academic freedom in light of the passage of laws like HB7, commonly known as the “Stop Woke Act.” The law, approved by the Florida Legislature, became effective in July and prohibits employers and schools from mandating race or diversity-related classes.
“I have to learn a lot more to really understand what it is,” Sasse said. “But academic freedom is obviously essential.”
He alluded to the conversation around indoctrination in the classroom and said that there would be no indoctrination with the inclusion of vigorous debate. “Good teaching shouldn’t be indoctrination,” he said.
He stressed his commitment to teaching all perspectives, including his interest in teaching the “Original Sin” of American slavery.
“I wasn’t satisfied with his response to the question around HB7,” said Dr. Pasha Agoes, assistant instructional professor at the William and Grace Dial Center at UF.
Agoes repeatedly tried to raise his hand to ask for elaboration, but he didn’t have an opportunity, because there was only time for three questions from the audience.
“He didn’t specify how he was going to balance academic freedom under the law,” Agoes said. “Maybe because he is new and doesn’t know his plan yet.”
Another pre-selected question stated that “many of us are deeply concerned by your positions on LGBTQ rights” and asked what he will do to promote equality and inclusion on campus.
“I believe deeply in the immeasurable worth and the universal dignity of every single person,” Sasse said.
“Obergefell is the law of the land; America is not changing,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. “I don’t see any movement at this university to have any discussion of any changes.”
Throughout the forum, Sasse repeatedly fell back on his outsider status. “I’m just getting to know the issues of the moment in the community,” Sasse said, who’s never been to Tallahassee.
But despite his Nebraska origins, Sasse said he has big plans for education reform in an ever-changing world.
“It’s the end of life-long work,” he said.
As more people tend to change careers throughout their lives, schools need to prepare students to make pivots, Sasse said. He expressed his interest in artificial intelligence technology and referred to his experience in Silicon Valley.
Board member Phalin then read an anonymous question about his take on the UF board of trustees having too much influence on the university. Sasse said that trustees should not be overhearing, maintaining a “noses in, fingers out” strategy.
“It’s important for any board to have transparency of what their goals and metrics are,” he said, despite the concerns over the ambiguity of his selection after the passage of SB 520, which provides privacy for university presidential applicants during the selection process.
One question raised concerns about Sasse’s past statements about China. Sasse said he’s glad to have an opportunity to clarify his intent.
“I’m not skeptical of Chinese people, I’m skeptical of the Chinese government,” he said.
At the end of the forum when the three audience members got their chance to ask questions, Sasse took the opportunity to correct some previous questionable or controversial statements he made while serving as senator.
One asked about his jokes around psychology majors made at an online high school commencement speech earlier this year.
Sasse said that his comments were not supposed to be taken seriously, and that “you can’t tell jokes on Zoom.” But he did say that all students should think about why they major where they do.
“If you’re headed to college, do not, do not major in psychology. That part’s not a joke,” Sasse said at the commencement in May.
Assistant Professor Trent D. Williams Jr. also inquired about UF’s low employment of faculty of color.
“I’ve got to know what our metrics are,” Sasse said. “But we need to be recruiting hard and fast.”