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University of Florida picks Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse as “sole finalist” in presidential search

If a state university needs a political operator as president, Florida may have found such a man. But that’s a big if.

Senate Subcommittee Examines How Social Media Design Shapes Discourse Photo by Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

The University of Florida has named Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, its “sole finalist” in a search to replace outgoing school president Dr. W. Kent Fuchs, it announced Thursday.

“This is right for the University of Florida, right for the state of Florida and right for the Sasse family,” said Rahul Patel, chair of the Presidential Search Committee. “Ben brings intellectual curiosity, a belief in the power and potential of American universities, and an unmatched track record of leadership spanning higher education, government and the private sector.”

“He has worked tirelessly for decades to empower people to accomplish their goals, placing education at the forefront of his lifelong service to this great nation. Having taught at the University of Texas, and served as a college president, Ben’s experiences are also deep and broad — from healthcare and technology to history and philosophy. His vision, humility, integrity, incredible personable nature and deep concern for humanity are all traits that will serve the UF community exceptionally well. This is the right moment for such a gifted public servant to lead the Gator nation into the future.”

And while “lone finalist” might connote a decision not yet done, Sasse is reportedly expected to retire from the Senate to take the position, as first reported by Politico, and Florida’s release notes that the last steps would be confirmation from the UF Board of Trustees and Florida’s Board of Governors — each of which would seem like a fait accompli when Mori Hosseini, chairman of the Board of Trustees, is quoted in the release as saying he is “thrilled” by Sasse’s selection.

Sasse’s own statement on the matter also seems to suggest that this is all but formally done, and that he is excited by the opportunity to lead “the most interesting university in America right now” — and, seemingly, to use UF to help reimagine the future of work.

“The University of Florida is the most interesting university in America right now,” said Dr. Sasse. “It’s the most important institution in the nation’s most economically dynamic state — and its board, faculty and graduates are uniquely positioned to lead this country through an era of disruption. The caliber of teaching and research at UF is unmistakable, carried out through the core principles of shared governance and academic freedom. I’m thrilled about the opportunity to work alongside one of the nation’s most outstanding faculties.”

“The single biggest challenge our nation faces is the radical disruption of work,” he said. “Technology is changing everything about where, when, why, what and how Americans work — and so it’s changing our homes, neighborhoods and communities too. Lifelong work in one sector will never again be the norm for most Americans, and therefore lifelong learning must necessarily become the norm for most Americans. Higher education is going to need to change and grow — and rethink its forms — again and again.”

Sasse will take the highest chair at Florida in the wake of a cluster of crises, most notably one regarding academic freedom that was ignited when the university initially blocked political science professors from testifying as experts for plaintiffs suing the state of Florida regarding new election laws passed in the wake of the 2020 election. And while the university reversed itself on that decision and instituted new rules governing faculty members’ speech, that was and is only part of the aforementioned cluster, with new state laws curtailing the ability to teach concepts of race and gender and mandating ideological surveys for students widely cited as possibly having chilling effects on public education in the state — and UF doing little or no public pushback against that, effectively casting it as either unable or unwilling to stand for its principles rather than have them dictated.

If the University of Florida is going to remain (or become) the “most important institution in the nation’s most economically dynamic state,” to use Sasse’s words, it needs leadership both capable of working with and resisting inappropriate pressure from the state government. And though Sasse’s political career is most notable for cultivating an image as a straight-shooting maverick — thanks largely to vocal criticism of former president Donald Trump — it remains to be seen if he will be that sort of leader in Gainesville.