Sen. Sasse’s chances of landing the job of president at the University of Florida still under scrutiny

Oct. 26, 2022, 3:30 p.m. ·

Ben Sasse Official_crop.jpg
First elected in 2014, Ben Sasse won reelection in 2020. His term runs through 2026. (Photo courtesy Ben Sasse)

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U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska continues to face pushback from students and faculty at the University of Florida after he was selected as the school's lone finalist for its presidency.

The Faculty Senate will consider a no confidence vote on Thursday in a symbolic move ahead of the Board of Trustees decision on Sasse next week.

Outgoing University of Florida president Kent Fuchs told students earlier this week they couldn’t protest indoors ahead of next week’s meeting to prevent a repeat of what happened at an event earlier this month when students chanted while Sasse took questions.

Paul-Ortiz sits in his office
Paul Ortiz (Courtesy University of Florida)

“You can’t, on the one hand, say you respect freedom of speech, but then, on the other hand, say, ‘Well, you have freedom of speech, but you can't do it inside of a building,’” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor at UF, who also leads the UF chapter of United Faculty of Florida.

The faculty union voted Wednesday to support the vote of no confidence. Among its top concerns: how the search was conducted and Sasse’s academic experience.

“I couldn't apply for being the president of University of Florida, and I have way more experience than Ben Sasse does,” Ortiz said.

Prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, Sasse served as the president of Midland University, a small Lutheran school in Fremont that enrolled nearly 1,400 students in 2017. The University of Florida, a major research university, enrolled more than 60,000 last year.

Sasse graduated with two Master's degrees and a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He later taught at the University of Texas at Austin briefly from January 2004 to January 2005. Later, in 2009, Sasse returned to UT before leaving for Midland.

Sasse’s short teaching experience and relatively small amount of published research concern Ortiz, who sits on the committee that would approve tenure in the history department. The professor said faculty at UF must have at least two peer-reviewed books and 15-20 peer-reviewed articles or essays to get tenured.

“He has none of them,” Ortiz said.

The union asked for Sasse’s curriculum vitae – or academic résumé – but they’ve not received it from the university, Ortiz said. According to Sasse’s Senate bio, he’s written two books: “The Vanishing American Adult” and “Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal.”

Not all UF faculty members disapprove of Sasse.

“I came away from the interview process thoroughly impressed with what I thought he would bring to the leadership of this university,” said Duane Mitchell, a professor of neurosurgery and a search committee member, last week at faculty senate meeting.

The search committee unanimously selected Sasse out of its pool that included sitting presidents and chancellors at other universities. All the candidates interviewed for the presidency met the position’s minimum criteria, according to David Bloom, another search committee member.

“Dr. Sasse was a level above the other candidates with respect to these key criteria that could take UF to another level,” Bloom said at the meeting.

Three University of Florida professors answer questions at a meeting
From left to right: University of Florida professors Amanda Phalin, Daune Mitchell and David Bloom answer questions at a Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo via UF livestream)

Bloom, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, told other faculty that although he liked Sasse as a candidate for president, he did have reservations about Sasse’s political positions. Bloom said he asked Sasse if he would put politics aside.

“As a senator, he represented his constituents in the state of Nebraska, but, as president, he would represent the faculty, the staff, the students of the University of Florida,” Bloom recounted Sasse telling the search committee.

The Nebraska Republican’s politics don’t bother Ortiz as much as other faculty members. The last two UF presidents have been Republicans. But just political experience isn’t enough to sell the union on being qualified for the school’s presidency.

“I'm sure he's a fine senator for the people in Nebraska,” Ortiz said. “But being able to work inside the beltway in Washington DC is very different than being president of a modern university.”

A new state law in Florida allowed the university administration to shield initial candidates from the public record. The GOP lawmaker who wrote the bill told the Tampa Bay Times that the new process was intended to keep all finalists public. The school only released one finalist: Sasse.

The faculty union filed a public records request for more information about the presidential search and other candidates. Ortiz said they’ve not heard back from the university.

Amanda Phalin, the chair of the faculty senate, said she didn’t like Sasse’s politics, describing herself as a left-leaning political progressive and feminist.

However, after sitting with Sasse for over an hour, she said Sasse won her over because he didn’t come across as a politician, rather as someone with a passion for higher education and someone who’s willing to learn.

“What I got from my conversation with him is that he understands at a university – and at this university in particular – that inclusivity and welcoming everyone is key for the excellence that we have and for the excellence that we want to continue to pursue,” Phalin said in the meeting. “I also saw someone who is willing to do the work to build those relationships, and there’s a lot of work.”

Because of her role with the senate, Phalin is one of the Board of Trustees' 13 members. The group is made up of six gubernatorial appointees, five Board of Governors appointees, the student body president and the chair of the faculty senate. The group is scheduled to interview Sasse next Tuesday.

The Board of Governors – the equivalent to Nebraska’s Board of Regents – will need to approve Sasse’s appointment. He would then need to resign his Senate seat. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he will not appoint a replacement – and leave that to whoever wins the gubernatorial race in November.