OMAHA – The University of Florida Board of Trustees unanimously offered Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse on Tuesday the position of the university’s 13th president.

Sassi has one last hurdle to clear on November 10, when the UF Board of Governors votes on his $1.6 million annual contract. (The Senate pays less than $200,000.)

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts or his successor will choose the state’s next senator. The Secretary of State’s office said the governor has 45 days of vacancy to fill the position.

There was little chance of Sassi being rejected after he got this far. Fourteen of the 17 UF trustees are appointed by the governor, a seat held by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

Secretaries hug Sassi

The long-awaited question was what faculty representative to the board of directors, Amanda Fallen, would do. The UF Senate voted last week to express no confidence in the process that named Sassi, the former president of the University of Midland in Fremont, NE, the only final candidate.

Fallen said Tuesday she was confident after speaking to Sassi and others involved in the selection process that Sassi would be able to overcome the concerns of faculty and students.

Protesting students last month cut off Sassi’s first public appearance on campus. Many objected to his earlier comments about LGBT rights, including marriage.

Sassi has repeatedly argued this week that he will work to keep the university inclusive. Fallen said she found his arguments convincing.

The crowd was calm on Tuesday, but campus leaders told students and staff that the school would impose a decades-old ban on indoor protests on campus.

When Sasse was approved, some in the crowd applauded and some shouted dissent.

One of the objectors said, “P-You are Mori (Hosseini),” referring to the chairman of the board. Another said, “This whole process bulls-.” A third said: This is a farce.

Stadium Sassi

Sassi, near the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, expressed his gratitude and said his family was excited about arriving on campus. In a statement afterward, focus on the next job.

He shared with Florida trustees some of the big-picture topics he talked about during his time in the Senate, including the changing nature of work.

He said the University of Florida could lead higher education in preparing students for the functional and career disruption that comes from technology, including artificial intelligence.

“I am grateful for the Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote and endorsement of our shared vision to make the University of Florida an institution to change the world and a leader in higher education,” Sass said in a UF statement. “Education is learning to engage humbly and purposefully in new ideas. We want Gators to engage in ideas.”

A Sassi employee said he was unlikely to have a separate comment Tuesday to the Nebraska media. They said he would likely wait until after the November 10 meeting.

Higher education experts have described Sassi’s latest move as a formality once the two sides have settled the contract. Sassi will then decide when to resign from the Senate and when to start at the UF.

The employees previously said that if Sassi gets the job, he will likely resign in late November or early December.

Tuesday’s vote followed public testimony and a lengthy question-and-answer session on the future of higher education, academic freedom, tenure, and student and staff concerns.

Many of the questions relate to the senator’s political views and concerns about the secrecy surrounding the search for a university president.

Sassi told the trustees that he would practice “political celibacy” when it came to partisan politics that preceded his presidency of the UF.

“So I won’t have any partisan politics in any way when I get to the University of Florida,” Sassi said. I will not speak at political events. I will not make political contributions, partisan political contributions. I will not compensate or assist any candidate.”

crowd reaction

A member of the UF Board of Trustees, Richard Cole, said he was reluctant to name a politician as university president, but no longer is.

“I was in school here when we did it twice, and I didn’t think it might have been the right thing at the right time,” Cole said. “But you beat that for me. I hope you do for them. I strongly support this nomination. I think she would do a great job. I really do.”

Brian Taylor, a graduate student at UF, said the process smelled of political interference that once again made the university “a laughing stock of the academic community.”

“For people who are so obsessed with ranking (top 5) it’s surprising how little thought is given to how choosing a politician with more experience taking away people’s rights to be in a class will affect our standing,” she said.

Next steps

Ricketts declined to comment on Tuesday’s developments. A spokeswoman said he would stick to his pledge not to say anything until Sassi’s situation changed.

Political observers have speculated that Ricketts wants the job. The governor said that if he continued, he would leave the appointment to his successor.

The Republican candidate for governor, Jim Palin, the University of Nebraska trustee who supported Ricketts for the nomination, said Tuesday that he remains focused on winning his race.

Belen did not say how he would choose a successor.

“This is just one step in the confirmation process of becoming a university president,” Belen said, noting that Sassi still has to sign a contract.

Senator Carol Blood, the Nebraska Democratic nominee for governor, said she would choose a two-year senator, someone who does not want to run for re-election.

“I will accept applications for appointment and choose the person that I feel will work in a non-partisan manner (and) I will agree not to run for re-election so they can focus on the work they do,” she said.

She said the office belonged to Nebraskans, so the decision should be theirs. The seat will be up for election for a full term in 2024, if it opens in November or December.

Political observers said Ricketts, a Republican, would likely not let the seat fall into the hands of the Democratic Party if Palin lost.

Nebraska Democratic chairwoman Jane Klip said voters have a choice at the ballot box. She said voters who want someone who “represents our country with dignity” should vote for “blood for the ruler.” If they want Ricketts as a senator, “Belen is your man.”

The Nebraska Republican Party did not immediately respond with a letter seeking comment.

This article includes reports from Florida Phoenix, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the State Newsroom Network. Paul Hamill, chief correspondent for the Nebraska Examiner, also contributed to this report.

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