By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — A committee heading the search for a new University of Florida president announced Thursday that it put forward Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska as the lone finalist to lead the state’s flagship university.
Sasse would replace outgoing UF President Kent Fuchs, who said in January that he would step down from the post at the end of the year.
The UF Board of Trustees will interview Sasse during a Nov. 1 meeting. If trustees approve Sasse’s selection, it would then go before the state university system’s Board of Governors for a final sign-off.
A news release from the university pointed to Sasse having a “distinguished” academic career. Sasse formerly was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and spent five years as president of Midland University, a small private school in Nebraska.
The news release said Sasse is “widely credited with transforming” Midland University.
Sasse, who was elected to the Senate for the first time in 2014, holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate degree from Yale University.
In a statement Thursday, Sasse said he has been “pursued by wonderful institutions the past two years,” but until now had “resisted” being named a finalist.
“The University of Florida is uniquely positioned to lead this country through an era of disruption. The single biggest challenge our nation faces is the radical disruption of work. Technology is changing everything about where, when, what, and how Americans work — and so it’s changing our homes, neighborhoods, and communities too,” Sasse said in a statement posted to his Twitter account.
Sasse suggested the university can help alleviate what he sees as a workforce problem facing the country.
“UF is the most important in the nation’s most economically dynamic state. Washington partisanship isn’t going to solve these workforce challenges — new institutions and entrepreneurial communities are going to have to spearhead this work,” Sasse wrote.
Sasse’s selection came after a new state law allowed the search to be conducted in private. The law, approved by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis this year, created a public-records exemption for information that could identify applicants until near the end of searches, when information about finalists can be released. Information about other applicants remains shielded under the law.
The United Faculty of Florida opposed the law, and union President Andrew Gothard told The News Service of Florida on Thursday that he is concerned about the law’s influence on UF’s search process.
“We pointed out again and again to the Florida legislators who were voting for this bill that, despite what they said about campuses definitely bringing forward at least three candidates, and that there would still be transparency in the process, we said that this would lead to scenarios where one person would be put forward as the only candidate for consideration,” Gothard said. “And that person would often come from a pool of people in politics, rather than people solely in higher education.”
The university said Thursday that the recruitment process was “exhaustive” and included “outreach” to more than 700 leaders within and outside higher education.
“Ultimately, the search committee focused its attention on a dozen highly qualified diverse candidates. Nine were sitting presidents at major research universities, and seven were from AAU (Association of American Universities) universities,” the UF news release said.
Gothard said the union is concerned about the search process and what he called a lack of transparency. But he added that the union is “pleased to see” that Sasse has a background in higher education in addition to his time in politics.
“We believe Sen. Sasse should be given an opportunity to prove himself, and particularly to show where he stands on the ongoing attacks by Gov. DeSantis and his supporters on higher education in the state. As the president of the University of Florida, he will be at the forefront of enduring attacks on (professors’) tenure, on academic freedom,” Gothard said.
Before the trustees interview Sasse, he is scheduled to visit the UF campus on Monday to meet with students, faculty members and staff.
UF trustees Chairman Mori Hosseini touted Sasse’s selection.
“Our economy is rapidly evolving and UF graduates will lead the nation. We need a transformational leader to guide our strategic planning to prioritize among the spectacular opportunities before us in this time of growth and change,” Hosseini said in a statement.
Sasse’s selection came amid a flurry of activity to hire new presidents at Florida universities.
A search committee at Florida International University last month recommended that interim FIU President Kenneth Jessell become the Miami school’s president. Also, a search committee picked three finalists to succeed outgoing Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin. In addition, Florida Atlantic University is in the process of seeking a new leader.
The University of South Florida and the University of North Florida also hired new presidents this year.