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

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.”

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