On Monday, October 10, Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse visited the University of Florida campus at Gainesville where he hopes to become president. On a meet and greet at the school, questions were raised about why a GOP Senator reelected in 2020 was looking for a job when his current one doesn't end until January 2026.
But the University of Florida presidential search committee named Sasse as the only finalist for the job the week before his visit—a decision met with considerable backlash.
And when Sasse arrived Monday he was met with signs reading:
"700 candidates and you pick a homophobe"
"Top 5 in homophobia, misogyny, bigotry"
You can see local coverage of the protests here:
Sasse cited the busy schedule of a United States Senator and his three children as his reason for leaving Congress shortly after being elected to a second six year term in 2020.
"I didn’t want to be a dad that never shared family dinners with his kids on weeknights."
Sasse has two children in college and an 11-year-old.
But faculty and student opposition wasn't focused on Sasse’s reasons for leaving the Senate.
Protesters and participants at Sasse’s forums were more concerned about Sasse’s history of homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia and the secretive nature of how the UF search committee picked Sasse as the only finalist.
During the second of three public forums, about 200 student protesters chanted “Hey hey, ho ho. Ben Sasse has got to go" in the lobby of Emerson Alumni Hall while Sasse spoke to students after a forum with faculty. The protesters could be heard in the closed door forum causing Sasse to pause more than once.
Eventually Sasse decided to end the student forum 15 minutes early leaving the forum venue—the Alumni Hall ballroom—empty and available for occupation by protesters. As a result, the final forum with university employees was held online.
Protesters came with five demands:
- Sasse to decline the president’s job
- UF board of trustees to release the withheld names of all 12 people interviewed for the post
- more transparency during selection process
- repeal of a new Florida law keeping presidential searches at state colleges and universities out of public view
- UF to commit to picking a person who demonstrated “consistent advocacy and respect for people of all sexual orientations, genders and races”
While the faculty forum didn't include a large group of protesters outside the ballroom doors, Sasse didn't coast ghrough the session.
Faculty members asked Sasse about tenure. During a five-year period as president of Midland University in eastern Nebraska, Sasse ended faculty tenure. Sasse claimed Midland and UF were different, saying tenure was a recruitment necessity in Florida and he would be a “zealous defender of tenure” in Florida.
Both faculty and students had questions about Sasse’s homophobic statements.
Jade Jackson, 20, a public health major, told WUFT News:
"I just think that his voting history, anti-affordable care act, anti-LGBTQ, climate denial in the state of Florida is kind of ridiculous."
"He doesn’t support the values of students or even just students in general at UF."
During the faculty forum, President of the faculty senate Amanda Phalin read Sasse the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
”I believe deeply in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every single person."
”People vigorously wrestle about what the issues are in the classroom, but the community is a place for respect and inclusion for all Gators.”
Sasse added he would meet with the LGBTQ+ advisory group on campus to create a more inclusive community.
The Nebraska Republican also walked back some of his other past public comments.
Sasse said he believes in climate change, Chinese or Chinese American scholars should not fear his stances against the Chinese Communist party hiring spies within universities, and he didn’t have anything against people who majored in psychology or people named Jeremy—a reference to failed jokes Sasse attempted during a Zoom hosted high school commencement during the pandemic.
The Senator claimed he was a staunch defender of academic freedom, calling it “essential to our research mission and essential to what happens in a dynamic classroom.” But he added he is still learning about a new Republican backed Florida law—HB7 commonly known as the “Stop Woke Act"—limiting discussion of race and gender issues in all Florida publicly funded classrooms.
Sasse added—in another departure from his party's core rhetoric:
”You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the original sin in America of racism."
According to Sasse’s GOP leadership and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, learning about racism is what causes racism.
Assistant instructional professor Dr. Pasha Agoes said:
"I wasn’t satisfied with his response to the question around HB7."
“He didn’t specify how he was going to balance academic freedom under the law."
“Maybe because he is new and doesn’t know his plan yet.”
Faculty members reported after Sasse and the selection committee finished introductions and addressing them there was only time for three faculty questions before the forum's scheduled ending leaving many with unanswered concerns.
Sasse wasn't any more popular online where students, faculty, employees and alumni spoke out.
A law professor who put together the faculty senate’s report investigating academic freedom at UF,Danaya Wright, said in an interview:
”I think being president of UF is a very difficult job."
“Nobody is going to be perfect at every aspect of it. We’ll wait and see."
"Some faculty are very, very skeptical and concerned. And they have valid reasons to be."
"He’s going to have to prove himself.”
Sasse said if hired his first job would be to "listen, listen, listen and listen some more.”
“If this goes the way I hope it will, I imagine I would start in the new year and there would be many, many months of listening.”
Sasse is currently the only candidate slated for an interview in November.