Nebraska U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse won approval Tuesday from the University of Florida Board of Trustees to be the school’s next president despite vocal opposition from some faculty and students.
Sasse, a Republican, was recommended for the top post by a unanimous vote of the trustees. A final vote to elevate Sasse as the school’s 13th president is set for Nov. 10 by the state university system Board of Governors.
During a four-hour meeting Tuesday on the Gainesville campus, Sasse sought to allay concerns that he’s more a creature of politics than academia by saying he will take a “pledge of political celibacy” with regard to partisan issues.
“I would have no activity in partisan politics in any way as I arrive at the University of Florida,” Sasse said, adding that his candidacy was not pushed by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis or other Florida elected officials. “There is just tons and tons of learning and listening that I need to do.”
Opposition to Sasse, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, has focused on his stance against same-sex marriage and positions on other LGBTQ issues. Some faculty and students question his qualifications to run such a sprawling school with more than 50,000 students. leading to a recent no-confidence vote by the university’s faculty Senate.
Sasse, a historian by training with a doctorate from Yale University, was previously president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, which has just over 1,600 students. He also taught at the University of Texas.
“I want to ask, senator: Why are you here?” freshman student Nathaniel Pelton asked at the meeting, which drew several dozen protesters outside. “I don’t want any politician to be my president. I want someone who cares about my community.”
Sasse, 50, said he does not foresee changes in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. He said LGBTQ students and faculty will be treated with “dignity and respect,” just like anyone else on campus.
“Communities of ideas are built on respect and trust,” Sasse said. “Everybody is created with infinite worth.”
Still, some students are skeptical and want assurances that Sasse will keep his promises of political neutrality, said Lauren Lemasters, the university student body president.
“There is this hill of trust that is going to have to be climbed by you,” she said.
Sasse also said he strongly supports faculty tenure and academic freedom so that there is a robust exchange of all ideas on campus. And despite his strong criticism of the communist Chinese government, Sasse said students and faculty from China should feel welcome.
“We want the best faculty to stay at this place and to be recruited to this place, and that requires academic freedom,” he said. “We want more and all students from every background.”
Much criticism of Sasse’s choice centered on a new selection process in which all candidates remained anonymous until only the single finalist’s identity was revealed. Mori Hosseini, the trustees’ chairman, said almost none of the most qualified candidates would have pursued the job had the process been public.
“I can tell you for a fact none of the top 12 we considered would have moved past the initial conversation with us.” Hosseini said. ”It’s that simple.”
Sasse would resign his Senate seat if he wins final approval as the university’s president. The Republican governor of Nebraska would appoint a replacement to finish the four years remaining on his second term.
Sasse will replace Kent Fuchs, who has been Florida’s president since 2015 and has overseen the school’s rising academic reputation among public universities nationally.