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University of Florida welcomes presidential finalist Ben Sasse with protests and tough questions | Nation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida students and faculty welcomed Sen. Ben Sasse to campus on Monday, greeting the Nebraska Republican with biting questions and a loud protest as he sought to portray himself as the next probable president of the school.

Introduced last week as the only finalist for the job, Sasse, 50, has faced opposition to his stances against same-sex marriage, his past efforts to ax tenure and the decision of UF leaders retain a large part of the selection process. secret.

During the second of three public forums, about 200 student protesters gathered in the lobby of Emerson Alumni Hall and refused to leave, waving signs and chanting “Hey hey, ho ho. Ben Sasse has to go. Their cries could be heard inside the President’s Ballroom, where Sasse addressed the students after an earlier forum with the professors.

Sasse paused a few times and smiled as the chants got louder, then ended the student session about 15 minutes earlier. Protesters then flocked to the ballroom ahead of the upcoming session with university employees.

To avoid the noisy scene, the university hosted the employee session online instead.

Protesters made five demands while occupying the ballroom for about an hour. They wanted Sasse to turn down the chairmanship and for the UF board to release the names—so far withheld—of the 12 people they had interviewed for the job. They also demanded more transparency in the selection process and the repeal of a new Florida law that keeps presidential research at state colleges and universities largely out of public view.

In addition, they wanted the UF to commit to selecting someone who demonstrates “consistent advocacy and respect for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and races.”

The large group stayed until the end of the employee session with Sasse shortly after 4 p.m. Some of them have said they plan to return on November 1, when Sasse is due to be interviewed by the board.

Sasse’s day started on a lighter note, after listening to songs by Tom Petty during his predawn workout in Gainesville. He said during the faculty session that the melodies felt more special in the musician’s hometown.

But he quickly faced a series of tense questions at the start of the session.

Faculty members questioned him about his tenure stances, which he completed for a five-year stint as president of tiny Midland University in eastern Nebraska before being elected to the Senate. .

Sasse drew distinctions between Midland and UF, saying tenure was a necessity for recruitment at a major research university. He said he would be a ‘zealous defender of tenure’ in Florida and would take it upon himself to explain his merits to people who might not understand in Tallahassee, a place he said he had never been. .

But the first question from faculty and students was how Sasse would protect LGBTQ people, based on his previous statements opposing same-sex marriage.

Amanda Phalin, president of the faculty senate, said many UF professors are “deeply concerned” about Sasse’s stance on this issue and have read the university’s non-discrimination policy to him.

Sasse responded, saying his positions were a “subset” of who he was. “I deeply believe in the immeasurable worth and universal dignity of every person,” he said.

He added that the law is settled and nothing is being considered at UF that would call that into question.

“People struggle vigorously on issues in the classroom,” Sasse said, “but the community is a place of respect and inclusion for all Gators.”

He said he would meet with the on-campus LGBTQ advisory group to learn more about what is needed to create a more inclusive community.

Lucca Carlson, a sophomore at the protest, said while he was expecting a Conservative nomination, he was not expecting a politician currently in office “who had publicly made hateful statements”.

Sasse during questioning also sought to set aside what he said were other misconceptions about his positions.

He said he believes in climate change, unlike other members of his party, but believes that innovation can provide the solutions, not the federal government.

He said that Chinese or Chinese-American scholars should not be afraid of his positions against the Chinese Communist Party’s hiring of spies in universities. And he said he had nothing against people who majored in psychology or people named Jeremy, a reference to jokes he made during a high school commencement speech he gave via Zoom during the pandemic. Sasse admitted that his attempts at humor that day failed.

Danaya Wright, a law professor who authored the faculty senate report investigating academic freedom at UF, said in an interview that she tries to keep an open mind about Sasse.

“I think being president of UF is a very difficult job,” she said. “No one is going to be perfect in every aspect. We’ll wait and see. Some teachers are very, very skeptical and worried. And they have good reason to be. He’s going to have to prove himself.”

Sasse reiterated that he is a strong advocate for academic freedom, saying it is “essential to our research mission and essential to what happens in a dynamic classroom.”

He said he was still learning about a new Florida law pushed by Governor Ron DeSantis that limits discussion of race and gender issues in the classroom, but added that people should be able to talk about race and have debates about history.

“You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the original sin of racism in America,” he said during the session with the teachers.

He had opened the session saying that he had not sought the UF job but was concerned about creating more agile learners. He said students graduating now cannot expect to work in the same field throughout their careers, and he wants to be part of solving that problem.

He spoke of his time in Silicon Valley, where he understood the concept of disruption and the need for higher education to change structures that were relevant 20 and 30 years ago, but not today.

Sasse also mentioned his family, suggesting life as a college president was more appealing to him than his Senate job. “I didn’t want to be a dad who never shared family dinners with his kids on weeknights,” he said.

He said he was the father of a sophomore and a college freshman as well as an 11-year-old child. They were “all-schooled,” he said, attending public and private schools as well as homeschooling and private tutoring.

He said he hopes all learning, including at UF, will include more field experiences, more languages, and more study abroad experiences.

When asked how he would fit the learning curve of leading a university as large and complex as UF, he said he would “listen, listen, listen and listen again.”

He didn’t have a timetable, he said, but “if it goes the way I hope, I imagine I would start the new year and there would be many, many months of listening”.


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