How Ben Sasse Became a Combatant in Florida’s Education Wars

When the University of Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs, announced early last year that he planned to step down and a search began for a new campus leader, the school was well positioned to attract a top-tier candidate. Set on 2,000 wooded acres between Orlando and Jacksonville, U.F., as it is known, does not have the shiny reputation of some of the nation’s other big public universities, and its home city, Gainesville, doesn’t radiate the charm of, say, a Chapel Hill, N.C., or a Boulder, Colo. But it could be argued that the school is the model of what a public university should be.

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It doesn’t go hunting for out-of-state students and the inflated tuitions they bring. Ninety-two percent of its 35,000 undergraduates come from Florida; for many other flagship universities, the figure is not much over 50 percent, and for some, like the University of Alabama, it barely cracks 40 percent. By current standards, they pay a bargain rate: $6,380 for a full year. (And many of its students qualify for Florida’s Bright Futures program and attend free, housing included.) In exchange, they get to go to a highly regarded school. Even as nearly everyone in higher education complains about the emphasis put on college and university rankings, for the schools that get top marks, like U.F., they are a point of pride and a marketing tool. Last year, U.S. News ranked the University of Florida fifth among public universities — behind only the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Michigan; and the University of Virginia.

A search committee to identify U.F.’s next president was appointed by the chairman of its board, Morteza Hosseini, a homebuilder who through a SuperPAC has donated at least a million dollars to the campaigns of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor. He has flown DeSantis around on his private jet. Hosseini chose a fellow trustee, also a DeSantis donor, to lead the committee. Their work was invisible to the public, because shortly after Fuchs resigned, the State Legislature exempted searches for college presidents from the state’s public-records statutes. The supposed rationale behind the measure is that current university presidents and provosts will not compete for jobs if their names will be made public. When the search committee put forward a sole candidate, however, it was not someone from academia but a United States senator: Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, who still had four years left in his term.

DeSantis did not hire him directly, and Sasse says they did not speak during the search. Two layers separate the governor from the U.F. presidency, the school’s board and the state’s Board of Governors, which governs Florida’s higher-education system, but both boards are packed with DeSantis appointees and loyalists. And as DeSantis has increasingly turned public education — from K-12 through higher ed — into a political battleground, it is clear that U.F. has not remained neutral territory.

Last October, after he emerged as the search committee’s choice, Sasse visited campus for a series of town halls. At one, held for students, hundreds of protesters chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ben Sasse has to go!” Some held signs labeling him a homophobe. Over his eight years in the Senate, Sasse sometimes spoke like a bridge-builder — he criticized the “jackassery” he observed in Congress and was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Donald Trump after Jan. 6 — but he almost never voted like one. He voted consistently against women’s reproductive rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and measures to address climate change. In his 2018 book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” he proudly referred to himself as “the second- or third-most conservative member of the Senate.”

When he returned to Gainesville a month later for the official appointment by the board, the occasion was billed as an “interview,” but Sasse’s hiring was a fait accompli. (His five-year contract is worth as much as $10 million in total compensation.) The event began with comments from members of the U.F. community. A Ph.D. student charged that Sasse was “guaranteed to bring shame and embarrassment” to the university. Oscar Santiago Pérez, a gay undergraduate who is now president of U.F.’s Student Senate, accused Sasse of having made “disparaging remarks about people in my community” as a senator. Another undergraduate turned to the board and said, simply, “Y’all really [expletive] up.”

Student protests on campus in February.Credit…Gabriella Aulisio/The Independent Florida Alligator

Sasse, who is 51, listened impassively. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale and spent five years as president of a small Lutheran school in Nebraska. But he was previously a management consultant for more than a decade, at Boston Consulting Group and as an external adviser to McKinsey & Company, and that is the language he speaks. According to U.F.’s acting provost, Scott Angle, Sasse has been holding dinners at his home to learn more about U.F. and talking with “a cadre of consultants who have fanned out” across campus and beyond. A copy of the contract for this work, obtained through a public-records request, shows that McKinsey is getting $4.7 million to provide guidance on “strategic management.” Sasse told his audience that “an age of technological disruption” was coming, one that would be “scary” and “opportunity filled.” He said they needed to create a “data-saturated environment.” He said he was sure he would be too busy to even think about politics — but just in case, he was taking a “pledge of political celibacy.”

A university presidency is many jobs wrapped into one: chief executive, fund-raiser, academic leader. Sasse’s predecessor, Fuchs, who led U.F. for eight years, also served as a kind of village elder, as many college presidents do, and was ubiquitous around campus. Sasse took office in early February, after leaving the Senate the month before, and the distinguishing feature of his first half-year in office was that he stayed out of sight. “You don’t see him,” Jiselle Lee, the editor of The Independent Florida Alligator, U.F.’s award-winning student newspaper, told me. “He’s a mystery. He’s a ghost.” A rumor even circulated over the spring and summer that he was secretly working from an office below the baseball stadium. Sasse says he was plotting U.F.’s future; his opponents believed he was afraid to confront more criticism. Around campus, posters went up with Sasse’s picture on them and the caption: “Missing! Have you seen this man?”

In early July, Sasse traveled to Pensacola Beach, on Florida’s Panhandle, about 350 miles from campus. He was there to confer with the chairman of Florida’s Senate Appropriations Committee, who hosts an annual gathering during the week of a big air show put on by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. Sasse had not given any previous interviews after becoming president to Florida journalists, the campus newspaper or anyone else other than a brief appearance on a radio show to talk about U.F.’s baseball team. He had suggested we talk in the lobby of the Hilton hotel, which was teeming with people, some of them shirtless.

After we found a quiet spot a short walk from the lobby, he told me that he had not pursued the U.F. job and was not interested in it when he was first approached by Rahul Patel, the leader of the search committee, a partner in the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding and a regular donor to Republican candidates. The university initially used a search firm that compiled a list of more than 700 candidates; how Sasse emerged at the top of it has never been made clear. As he learned more about the university, he says, he grew more intrigued. “There’s a lot about the dynamism about this place that’s just amazing,” he told me. After I questioned whether a Democratic senator would have been chosen to lead the school, he said, “I don’t think I agree.”

A poster on campus during a period in which many in the community said Sasse was rarely seen in public.Credit…Kestrel Ward

Sasse grew up in Fremont, Neb., a city of about 27,000 where his father was a football and wrestling coach at the high school. He has described the town with a deep sense of nostalgia: At basketball games in the packed gymnasium, he has written, “there were no rich or poor — there were only Fremont Tigers.” He earned his Ph.D. in 2004. His dissertation focused on the “rise of Reagan’s America” and the modern conservative movement, which he attributed to a backlash against a secularizing America. He and his wife, Melissa, have two young-adult daughters and a son still at home. All three have been partly home-schooled.

Sasse’s words sometimes tumble out in a kind of techno-futurist patois that can be hard to follow. In response to a question about his perceived invisibility on campus, he veered off into something about the future of pedagogy. “And that requires us to unbundle cohorting, community and synchronicity from co-localities,” he said. Later, he added, “What will today’s generic term ‘professor’ mean when you disaggregate syllabus designer, sage-on-the-stage lecturer, seminar leader, instructional technologist, grader, assessor, etc.?”

Sasse is not the first politician to lead a big public university. David Boren served as president of the University of Oklahoma for more than two decades, and Mitch Daniels led Purdue University, in Indiana, for 10 years. But each had been a governor of his state. Many of Sasse’s critics have noted that the enrollment at Midland University, where he was president from 2010 to 2014, was smaller than that of their high schools. (At Sasse’s initiative, the school changed its name from Midland Lutheran College.) “His hiring is unusual in that most of the other candidates we see who come in from outside academia have had experience in leading something fairly big,” says Judith Wilde, a research professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia, who studies presidential searches in higher education. “Considering everything going on in Florida, it’s hard to see it as anything but political.”

At the November meeting where the trustees appointed him, Sasse gave some opening remarks after the public comments. But he did not respond to the criticism — or even acknowledge it. Among those who spoke against him were the president of the Graduate Student Council, a member of the student government, a representative of a campus Pride organization, a university employee who said she was the first in her family to go to college and an undergraduate who worked part time at U.F.’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service. Their complaints struck Sasse as irrelevant. “The idea that much of what’s happening here is about tribal politics is wrong, because what’s really happening is going to be radically disrupted by technology,” he told me. “The historian in my soul thinks that 100 years or a thousand years from now, when people are looking back, I really don’t think they’re going to be talking about politics.”

He continued: “What I think is, the people who scream are complete outliers for the community. There are 86,000 souls on campus, and the high-water mark of people screaming is usually dozens.”

In May, Sasse met over Zoom with a committee, set up by a predecessor, that advises the president on L.G.B.T.Q. concerns. Oliver Grundmann, a professor in the College of Pharmacy, told me that members of the campus community were worried because of the positions Sasse took in the past. When the subject of having at least one gender-neutral bathroom in each campus building came up, Sasse said he would look into it but that modifications could be difficult in some of the older buildings. “Our perception was that he paid attention,” Grundmann says. “He thanked us and said he appreciated our comments. It would be nice to receive an open letter of support and some fighting words, but the reality is on the other side.”

On July 1, Florida’s SB 266, a law stating that professors may not “distort” history, went into effect. A few days later, I visited Jon Sensbach, the chairman of U.F.’s history department. He swiveled in his office chair a couple of times to face his computer and look at the text of the bill — as if he still could not quite believe what it said. He read a passage aloud. General education core courses “may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics” or teach that “systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

Sensbach swung back around to face me. “We’re lucky,” he said. “We’ve got great students here. The idea that they have to be shielded from this material is insulting to them.” He added, “And I would submit that it is impossible to teach history without examining whether a legal framework was created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” He questioned how students could study the Constitution, for example, without looking at the three-fifths compromise, the agreement that three out of every five enslaved people would be counted when determining a state’s population.

I asked how the law would affect his teaching. “Personally, it won’t,” he said. “I’ll still teach the ways that racism has been embedded in our systems.”

The restrictions apply just to core courses, but those may be the only humanities classes taken by students not majoring in liberal arts and their only opportunity to be exposed to certain ideas in the classroom. And the introductory courses are often taught by faculty without job security. “Untenured and grad faculty are on the front lines,” Sensbach said. “They’re unprotected.” To add to the new law’s murkiness, professors are still waiting for the Board of Governors to write clarifying regulations. Until then, how — or even if — SB 266 will be enforced is unknown.

Sasse told me he sees no reason for professors to feel muzzled. The past “totally does have an impact on the present,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s going to keep a University of Florida professor from teaching that,” he said. “But you want to actually be teaching debates that allow people to get inside texts and wrestle. Because we don’t know the right answer on everything. I want more curiosity and less dogma. I want less indoctrination.”

The aggressive moves involving higher education in Florida are part of a wave of similar legislation in Texas, Tennessee and other red states. The efforts are based around the word Sasse used: indoctrination, the premise that professors are indoctrinating students with liberal orthodoxy. The research that exists on this point, however, indicates that rather than moving to the left during their time on campus, most freshmen are arriving at college already holding political views that lean that way.

U.F. admits 24 percent of those who apply to the freshman class. Their average SAT score is 1,408 on the 1,600 scale. I asked Sasse if he thought these bright incoming students could be indoctrinated by his faculty. “Of course,” he said.

Sasse has stressed the need for a “data-saturated environment” on campus. McKinsey is getting $4.7 million to provide guidance on “strategic management.”Credit…Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times

About three months after Sasse took over, the Republican-controlled Legislature allotted $10 million in recurring annual funds for the recently established Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education and an additional $20 million to renovate its building on the U.F. campus, a former infirmary. The entire budget for the school’s history department is about $4 million. No one at the university had requested the funds or even suggested the creation of the center. The idea came from a little-known organization called the Council on Public University Reform. The name attached to the “local funding initiative request” was Josh Holdenried, who has worked in Washington for the conservative Heritage Foundation and for Napa Legal, which assists faith-based nonprofits. He appears to have no links to the university or the state of Florida. (Holdenried could not be reached for comment.)

A proposal sent to U.F. administrators by the group’s lobbyist, Adrian Lukis, a former DeSantis chief of staff, made it clear that the center was not intended as a complement to what already exists at the university. Instead, the center is to “provide choice for Florida’s students and their parents dissatisfied with the present offerings.” (The proposal was originally obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education.) According to the center’s website, there’s an additional mission, too: to participate in the implementation of the K-12 civics curriculum in Florida’s public schools. The curriculum is to include Portraits in Patriotism, featuring the stories of Floridians who fled leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.

Keith Perry, a Republican state senator in Florida whose district includes the university, sponsored the legislation. Perry, who founded what became a large roofing company after graduating from high school, told me that he did not see why the center should have adversarial relationships on campus. He believes that “Western culture is not looked upon favorably in a lot of instances in higher education,” and he said his hope is that the new center will provide balance.

Sasse hired William Inboden, a professor at the University of Texas and his close friend of 30 years, to lead the Hamilton Center. A historian who won several teaching awards at Texas, he worked in national security for President George W. Bush and has advised DeSantis on foreign policy. He started his new role in August, taking over from the founding director. “I’m certainly aware of some aspects of, let’s call it, Hamilton’s complicated nativity,” Inboden told me. “But I would say: ‘Please give me and my team a chance. Let our research and teaching speak for Hamilton rather than any outside voices, whether critical or supportive.’”

The center’s Tallahassee roots make it a source of unease within U.F. “If there’s essentially a blank check coming directly from the Legislature for the Hamilton Center, there’s real concern on the part of the faculty about the future of their own departments,” Sensbach, the history professor, told me. “What’s the ultimate goal?”

In August, Sasse began holding a series of forums for faculty at the university’s 16 colleges. “He’s become better than just saying, ‘We are the most interesting university in the most interesting state in the most interesting time,’” says Danaya Wright, a law professor who opposed Sasse’s appointment and is now chairwoman of the Faculty Senate. “He has more information now, so we can have a conversation.”

Sasse has suggested at these forums that tuition is too low. He has also questioned whether U.F.’s 199 academic departments are more than it needs and that thought should be given to how the university can focus on what it does best. Humanities departments have become a target for lawmakers in red states who view them as bastions of leftist thought. The slides that Sasse shows at the forums focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or the STEM programs. “I assume those come from McKinsey,” Wright says. “What they produce is all going to be based on STEM, because that’s what’s easy to measure.”

Florida is one of the most generous states in the support it gives to its colleges and universities. Tuition paid by students amounts to just over 20 percent of the total revenue for higher education in the state. Wyoming and California are the only states where students contribute less to their educations. But the funds from Tallahassee increasingly come with strings attached.

In 2021, U.F. tried to prevent three political-science professors from participating as expert witnesses in a lawsuit to overturn a state law that limited mail-in balloting, made voter registration more difficult and restricted the ability of people to provide food and water to voters in long lines. The professors were told that their involvement was “adverse to U.F.’s interests.” Hosseini, the trustee chairman, lashed out at them at a board meeting. “To this I say enough,” he said. “It must stop and it will stop.” But a federal judge ruled against the university, framing its move against the professors as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Mark Walker, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, compared U.F.’s actions to a Hong Kong university that took down a statue it feared would anger the Chinese government. “Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong,” he wrote in his opinion.

DeSantis encountered no such barriers in his takeover of the New College of Florida, a tiny liberal-arts school in Sarasota where, earlier this year, he appointed six new board members — who then promptly fired the president and replaced her with a lawyer and former Republican speaker of the Florida House. I asked Sasse if New College was a test run and if DeSantis might soon exert his will in a similar way at U.F. “How big is New College?” he parried.

Sasse does not have DeSantis’s barbed-wire personality, but it would be difficult to say where their politics diverge. In Washington, Sasse often seemed like someone trying to split the difference. He said he believed in climate change but that innovation, not the federal government, should address it. He did not vote to protect marriage equality but says, “I believe deeply in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every single person.” It’s the kind of parsing that can be harder to sustain in his current executive position, where various constituencies at his big, complicated university may want him to choose a side.

Wright, the chairwoman of the Faculty Senate, believes that what may insulate U.F. is the importance placed on what so many in academia say they disdain: the U.S. News rankings. “We’re probably already losing reputational points because of what’s happening, but I don’t think anybody benefits if we go down too much,” she says. “Not the board of trustees or Sasse and not even the governor.”

Sharon Wright Austin, one of the U.F. professors who sued to be able to take part in the voting rights case, takes a less optimistic view. In Sasse’s last job, his bosses were the voters of Nebraska, but now he reports up a chain of command that ends with DeSantis. “The governor does not like criticism or anyone to challenge him,” she told me. “University presidents are not supposed to be puppets, but this is Florida, and it’s a new time for academia in our state. And if you’re President Sasse and you don’t go along to get along, pretty soon you are going to have to get out.”

Michael Sokolove is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author, most recently, of “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.” Mark Peterson is a photographer in New York who was awarded a W. Eugene Smith grant for his work covering white nationalism.

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