Tensions ran high on the University of Florida campus on Monday as the state’s flagship higher education institution welcomed President Ben Sasse on his first day in office.
The former U.S. senator this week officially became the top-5 university’s 13th president, taking the reins from predecessor Kent Fuchs after being chosen in the fall as the sole finalist for the position.
Students and faculty alike are torn over the unanimous decision, which took place in October under a recent state law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that allowed for a more private search process in which the names of the other top candidates are not disclosed.
While some are indifferent to or support Sasse’s presidency, others feel outraged, said Thomas Ruby, a fourth-year computer science student at UF.
Ruby, an active member of Change Party UF and UF Young Democratic Socialists, strongly opposes Sasse’s leadership as president, condemning his “anti-gay, anti-trans” agenda and labeling him as a “glorified principal.”
“As soon as he feels emboldened for actual change, it’s not going to be for the best,” he said. “It’s going to be for the worst.”
He further criticized Sasse’s qualifications as UF president, claiming his political history is insufficient to hold the presidency at the university.
Despite his dissatisfaction with the decision, it is up to the student body to keep the momentum high while speaking out against the university, he said. Ruby later attended a protest outside Tigert Hall Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. in opposition of Sasse’s first day.
“It’s easy to feel hopeless about the situation, but if you look closer, we can do something about it — even as college kids,” he said.
In a campus-wide email, Sasse early in the day detailed plans to capitalize on opportunities including the building of career services, viewpoint diversity, artificial intelligence, agriculture technology and high-performing students and teachers.
“Some of these growth pains will be complicated, but in the long run, asking direct questions — about what’s working and what could work better, about what opportunities we’re overlooking and what successes we should more zealously trumpet — is not just necessary, but satisfying,” he wrote.
Paul Ortiz, a UF history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, described Sasse’s presidency as a threat to students’ academic autonomy, referencing DeSantis’ announcement on Jan. 31 to defund diversity equity and inclusion initiatives across Florida universities.
“Our students value diversity, equity and inclusion,” Ortiz said. “We expect President Sasse to uphold these principles of intellectual freedom, which is something that is under attack.”
As a historian, he said he fears the regression of UF as a historically all-white, all-male Protestant institution rather than protecting diversity-focused academic agendas.
“A university president has to be someone who supports all people on campus, not just your political tendency,” he said. “We expect President Sasse to encourage students to pursue whatever topic they want to major in.”
Some UF students expressed their support for President Sasse, including Matt Turner, a fourth-year economics and music student and president of the UF College Republicans since April 2022.
“By and large, I’m in favor of Sasse,” Turner said. “It really depends on how he adjusts to the role as university president. If he comes in here and uses the position as a political platform, I’m not in favor of that.”
He applauds the president’s support for expanding education efforts focused on western civilization, artificial intelligence and the liberal arts, initiatives that Sasse wrote favorably of in the campus-wide email, he said.
“I think there’s an overall net-negative response from the student population, but I don’t necessarily think that’s sound,” he said. “So far, I haven’t had any indication that he’s going to use it as a political platform or as a way to further his own personal interests.”
Sasse can uphold the integrity of UF by maintaining its status as a top-ranking university, prioritizing proper department funding and advancing traditional academic teachings, he added.
“I know I’m definitely in the minority here, but I think it’s always important to point out that there’s a counterargument to every argument,” he said. “And to my fellow progressive students: There’s always a different perspective to a situation.”
First-year health science student Emily Davidson reiterated Turner’s remarks, as she said she aligns with Sasse’s publicly conservative and religious ideologies.
“He’s hated by a lot of people because of his political past, but I do lean toward his Republican views,” Davidson said. “I think he could change the minds of people who may not love him to understand that he may be a good leader.”
Amy Nicholas, a fourth-year natural resource conservation and anthropology student, said she feels just the opposite.
“I know of his conservative values, and it makes me nervous for his entrance to the UF community because he is not going to fairly support all voices in our student population,” Nicholas said.
With the increase in student campaigns and elections, it is essential to vote in order to amplify the voices of student senators. Until then, she hopes Sasse will listen to students and enact positive change.
“When you are starting to imprint on your community, you need to engage and advocate for it,” she said. “I hope that he stands with UF in trying to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the communities that need to be represented.”
Fourth-year English student James Nguyen said he, along with many of his peers, were unaware of and indifferent to Sasse’s first day as president.
“I have a mixed friend group — some are right-leaning conservatives, and some people are left-leaning,” Nguyen said. “I’m more neutral.”
Though he hopes Sasse will fairly represent the student and faculty, he said he believes personal politics bear little importance.
“It doesn’t really affect me,” he said. “It’s a minuscule matter to put my attention toward.”