Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse in line to become next president at University of Florida

The Republican Congressman and former Midland University president calls UF 'the most interesting university in America right now.'

Although leadership upheaval has become the norm in higher education during the last three years, very few pundits could have dreamed up the potential cosmic transfer of power announced by a Nebraska senator on Thursday.

That man, prominent Republican Ben Sasse, said he will quit his post in Congress to become the next president at the University of Florida. The two-term Senator, who has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for his votes against left-leaning policies and for his attacks on former president Donald Trump, decided he had finally had enough of politics. Higher education, which was his passion for so many years, called him back for another tour. This time it will be in Gainesville.

The university’s board of trustees and the state’s board of governors still must approve him. There is always the possibility that a snafu could submarine that official nomination in November, but it is highly unlikely. Out of 700 initial candidates, Sasse is the lone one remaining, and that final list included nine sitting presidents. He meshes well with the conservative lean of those most influential in the state. And he has an unquestioned resume in this arena – from his attendance at Harvard through his presidential leadership at Midland University from 2010-2014.

“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 UF’s 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.”

If confirmed, Sasse eventually would replace the outgoing Kent Fuchs, a leader who announced in January that he would be stepping down after eight years. The 67-year-old is expected to finish out the fall semester and might stay on a little longer to help in the transition. Fuchs will remain at UF in a teaching capacity in the college of engineering.

Sasse will take command at a pivotal moment in higher ed in Florida, where the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis have exerted enormous influence on decision-making at public institutions. At universities like UF, that means adherence to policies such as tenure-track faculty having to go under review and abiding by elements of the Stop WOKE Act that tamp down free speech. But Sasse’s conservative record could mean far less friction and far more agreement on some of those controversial issues.

One thing is certain. He will enter the University of Florida at its pinnacle. UF has grown to more than 60,000 students while soaring up ranking charts among the best public four years in the nation. And it is doing it at one of the most challenging times in the nation’s history as it faces inflation, a potential recession and recovery from the COVID pandemic.

“The University of Florida is uniquely positioned to lead this country through an era of disruption,” Sasse said. “The single biggest challenge our nation faces is the radical disruption of work. Technology is changing everything about where, when, why, and how Americans work—and so it’s changing our homes, neighborhoods, and communities too. Melissa and I have been pursued by wonderful institutions the past two years, but we’ve resisted being named a finalist. This time is very different. I think Florida is the most interesting university in America right now.”

And it will be led by one of the most interesting men in America.

Sasse has been one of the Republicans under an intense spotlight as he has deftly defended both left and right views. Though he has largely stuck to the party line, he has never been keen on Trump, voting to impeach him, voting to convict over the Insurrection and calling him out on numerous occasions for his views on women, his affinity for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, his election conspiracy theories and his pandemic decisions. How that will play in Florida will bear watching, although being removed from the Senate hot seat might alleviate some of that friction.

As remarkable a leap as it might seem, the move to Florida and this nimble research institution might give Sasse more muscle in helping the nation solve some of its most pressing problems.

“UF is the most important institution in the nation’s most economically dynamic state,” he said. “Washington partisanship isn’t going to solve these workforce challenges; new institutions and entrepreneurial communities are going to have to spearhead this work. If UF wants to go big, I’m excited about the wide range of opportunities. I’m delighted to be in conversation with the leadership of this special community about how we might together build a vision for UF to be the nation’s most dynamic, bold, future-oriented university.”

Sasse’s track record already includes saving one institution from folding. Midland received a name change during his tenure and doubled its enrollments before stabilizing under Sasse and current president Jody Horner. His résumé also includes being an instructor at Yale as well as on the faculty of the University of Texas, one of the many reasons for the unanimous backing by UF’s search committee.

“Ben Sasse brings to the helm of our university an outstanding educational background and a wealth of experience and visionary leadership in academia, industry and government,” said Dr. Duane Mitchell, professor in the Department of Neurosurgery in UF’s College of Medicine. “His deep understanding and inspirational view of how to address opportunities and the challenges ahead in the future of education, research and health care are compelling assets that [he] will convey as the next president of the University of Florida.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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