Republican Sen. Ben Sasse set to become University of Florida president

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Dive Brief:

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, is the sole finalist for the University of Florida presidency.
  • Sasse is expected to resign from the U.S. Senate to lead the university once the institution’s trustees and Florida Board of Governors approve his selection.
  • The pick is notable given intense debate about political influence in the state’s higher education system and its institutions. But Sasse has academic as well as political chops, as he served as the president of a small nonprofit college in Nebraska from 2010 to 2014.

Dive Insight:

Florida’s public higher education system has been the subject of intense struggles stemming from allegations that state Republicans are interfering in matters traditionally reserved for college administrators or academic governance mechanisms. Many of those fights have centered on events at the University of Florida.

The 56,000-student flagship found itself in a legal fight over a conflict-of-interest policy under which it last year blocked professors from testifying in court about a voting rights law. University officials first said faculty participation in the voting rights lawsuit would be “adverse to the university’s interests” before relenting and allowing them to participate.

After those events unfolded, the university’s president, Kent Fuchs, announced in January his intention to step down in what the institution said was a planned transition to a faculty position.

The fight over the professors’ testimony also prompted the institution’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, to investigate whether political interference was at play. State lawmakers subsequently passed legislation requiring public colleges to change accreditors every cycle and allowing them to sue accreditors that take “retaliatory action.”

Florida has a long history of considering politicians for leadership positions at its powerhouse universities. In August, a search committee picked state Sen. Ray Rodrigues — a Republican considered an ally of governor and possible U.S. presidential candidate Ron DeSantis — to become chancellor of the State University System of Florida.

Sasse just ran for reelection in 2020 and was at one point considered a potential candidate for U.S. president, Politico reported. But he has criticized former President Donald Trump, who still holds intense power among Republicans, and was one of only seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump during his 2021 impeachment trial. Sasse has said that “America doesn’t work when partisans try to burn down our institutions.”

Sasse is a former president of Midland University, a liberal arts college in Nebraska that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and enrolls under 1,700 students. He has also been a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The University of Florida is the most interesting university in America right now,” Sasse said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”

Sasse is scheduled to visit campus Monday to meet with students and faculty.

“This is right for the University of Florida, right for the state of Florida and right for the Sasse family,” Rahul Patel, chair of the university’s presidential search committee, said in a statement. “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.”

Sasse’s candidacy would likely have become public knowledge sooner in previous presidential searches. Florida has long been known for strong open records laws that made candidates for university presidencies widely known. But lawmakers earlier this year passed legislation shielding candidates’ personal information from view until finalists are chosen.

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