Monday, December 5, 2022

Republican Senator Ben Sasse Emerges as Likely New President of U. of Florida

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The University of Florida is poised to name U.S. Sen. Benjamin E. Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, as its next president. Sasse, 50, is well-known in Washington and beyond for his outspoken views on higher education, and he was announced on Thursday as the sole finalist in UF’s search, a process that drew controversy for its secrecy.

Sasse’s academic bona fides are many: He holds degrees from Harvard and Yale Universities, including a doctorate from the latter, and taught at the University of Texas at Austin. He spent five years as president of Midland University, a private Lutheran institution in Nebraska, where he was lauded for raising enrollment numbers. Sasse left that post to become a senator, and is now two years into his second term in Congress. He’s expected to resign from the Senate this fall to join Florida, CNN reported.

The process that led to the presidential-search committee’s unanimous tapping of Sasse has been largely hidden because a state law, signed in March, that allows the system to keep secret the names of candidates who applied for the job. More than 700 leaders were contacted about the position, and “a dozen highly qualified diverse candidates,” including nine sitting presidents at major research universities, were identified, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Laura A. Rosenbury, dean of the University of Florida’s law school and a member of the search committee, told the Tampa news outlet that she thinks the new law led to a stronger candidate pool. “What made Ben stand out was his focus on how higher education must transform to keep pace with the changing nature of work and the changing nature of technology and society as a whole,” she said.

Sasse would take over amid a period of turmoil at UF, which made national headlines a year ago for forbidding faculty members to testify against the State of Florida in a voting-rights lawsuit, a decision it reversed a week later after outcry about violating the professors’ academic freedom. A Chronicle investigation last month revealed that the case was part of a larger history of attempts to curtail faculty members’ outside activity in order to steer clear of possible conflicts of interest.

What made Ben stand out was his focus on how higher education must transform to keep pace with the changing nature of work.

Other institutions in Florida have struggled to net leaders in recent months. Few of the eight candidates who applied this summer to lead the State University System of Florida had extensive experience working at U.S. universities, and the system chose another politician, State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, to be its next chancellor. The top three candidates selected by Florida International University’s presidential-search committee bowed out, and the lone finalist for that job is the interim president — who hadn’t even applied. Florida Atlantic and Florida Gulf Coast Universities are also seeking new presidents, raising concerns about whether the state’s political climate is deterring candidates.

“It would be naïve to not consider that high-profile state political climates are a major factor in possible candidates’ shying away from applying,” Felecia Commodore, an associate professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University, told The Chronicle. “Florida has had a lot of press lately regarding what some would call a heavy-handed approach to governance from the state executive branch in relation to its public institutions.”

With Sasse joining Rodrigues, the top two jobs in Florida’s public-university system will be held by former Republican lawmakers.

‘The Most Interesting University in America’

During his time in Washington, Senator Sasse has emerged as a prominent GOP leader whose name was at one time floated as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. He attracted criticism from other party leaders after becoming one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, for inciting the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The Board of Trustees will vote on Sasse’s candidacy at a meeting scheduled for November 1, and Sasse will visit the system’s Gainesville campus on Monday to meet with students, faculty, and staff members, according to a release from the university.

If appointed, Sasse would succeed W. Kent Fuchs, who announced in January that he would step down from the system presidency and rejoin the faculty after seven years at the helm. Sasse said in a statement on Twitter that he’s been approached about several college presidencies in the past two years but has declined. “This time is different because the University of Florida is different. I think Florida is the most interesting university in America right now,” he said. “UF is the most important institution in the nation’s most economically dynamic state.”

If Sasse’s past remarks are any indication, Florida can expect a new leader who will be eager to shake things up. “I’m a turnaround guy,” Sasse told The Chronicle in 2013, when he was president of Midland. “I’m not a traditional college president.”

He wrote recently in The Atlantic about the need to reform higher education, which he said is “failing our students on a massive scale,” and instead called for “more accountability, more experimentation, more institutional diversity, more intellectual curiosity, more adaptive learning, and more degrees and certifications.”

He’s also championed the role college can play in young adults’ lives, telling the Deseret News that “a huge part of the character development and the learning that happens from 18 to 20 and 20 to 22 isn’t just in the classroom,” he says. “It’s in the dining hall, it’s in the residence hall, it’s on the field, track, mat, stage, and those kinds of places where you learn plural vocations are critically important to the full development of a human.”

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