Students at U. of Florida. (LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Tampa Bay Times)

In a highly anticipated announcement following a year of tumult on campus, the University of Florida said Thursday it has zeroed in on a national political figure to be its next president: Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Sasse, 50, emerged as the sole finalist in a search that took place under a new Florida law that keeps the key early stages of a public university’s presidential selection process out of the public eye. But UF officials sought to allay any concerns, calling their process “exhaustive.”

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Members of the school’s presidential search committee reached out to more than 700 leaders, narrowing the field to what they called “a dozen highly qualified diverse candidates,” including nine who were sitting presidents at major research universities. The university declined to name anyone in that group.

Sasse, who is two years into his second Senate term, was the search committee’s first choice by unanimous vote. He has five academic degrees and was president of a small Lutheran university in Nebraska before becoming a senator. He is sometimes mentioned as a future candidate for U.S. president and has faced backlash from his party for rebuking former president Donald Trump. He was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection in February 2021.

Sasse is scheduled to visit the Gainesville campus on Monday to meet with students, faculty and community members, who are invited to submit questions in advance and feedback afterwards. He will return Nov. 1 to be interviewed by the university’s board of trustees.

If approved by the trustees, he would become UF’s 13th president, replacing Kent Fuchs, who announced in January he will step down to take a faculty position after a successor is chosen.

Sasse’s selection would mark a departure from recent UF presidents, who have mostly come from the administrative ranks of top U.S. universities. Though his academic credentials are significant, his presidency would be part of an increasing impulse toward choosing politicians for the role.

Sasse earned a Ph.D. from Yale University, where he later taught. He also was a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin and served as president of Midland University in Nebraska for five years, where he is credited with transforming the institution and boosting enrollment. Midland is on the opposite end of the higher education spectrum from the University of Florida, with about 1,500 students compared to more than 50,000 at UF.

Sasse recently published an essay in The Atlantic about his thoughts on fixing American higher education and student debt crisis.

Rahul Patel, a member of UF’s board of trustees who chaired the search committee, said in an interview that the process was robust. The committee conducted several listening sessions where Sasse’s name emerged. Patel said they reached out to hundreds of potential candidates, and he personally met with more than 35 before the committee narrowed its focus to a dozen.

“The feedback was, for us to take the next step to truly becoming one of the most important universities in the country we will need a visionary, an innovator and big thinker who would differentiate us from others — a leader who is transformational,” Patel said. “The committee unanimously felt Ben Sasse is a transformational leader.”

Laura Rosenbury, dean of the college of law, also served on the search committee and served on President Fuchs’ committee last year to investigate the university’s conflict of interest policy after professors in her college were told they could not participate in legal cases against the state.

Rosenbury said she believed Sasse would be a staunch defender of academic freedom.

“What made Ben stand out was his focus on how higher education must transform to keep pace with the changing nature of work and the changing nature of technology and society as a whole,” she said.

Rosenbury said she thinks the new law that makes applicants confidential led to a stronger pool of candidates, and one that was diverse. She said she was impressed by the pool.

Patel said none of the dozen candidates they spoke to in the end wished to be publicly identified unless they were the only finalist moving forward in the process.

In an interview Thursday, Sasse said he’s often contacted by search firms to serve as an informal advisor as a former university president and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee focused on U.S. competitiveness. He said he routinely turns down opportunities to be considered as a candidate, but was approached several times about applying for the UF job.

“Along the way I came to see the University of Florida as the most interesting university in the country,” he said. “It’s the most important institution in the state with the most dynamic economy in the union.”

Sasse has written about the changing nature of the workforce that will likely lead to people needing to change jobs and careers within a lifetime. He said his vision for higher education involves training people to be life-long learners and more nimble.

“I think we need a lot more dynamic and interesting institutions serving 15- to 35-year-olds,” he said. “Higher ed institutions can no longer pretend that most people are going to be one and done.”

Sasse said he saw a “cornucopia of opportunities” at a university that houses one of the most powerful supercomputers, an expanding reach across the state with new acquisitions and a large health care system.

Though his name has been floated as a potential GOP presidential candidate, Sasse said he welcomes the opportunity to step away from the political arena and that he’s never harbored aspirations for a life in politics.

“I’m excited frankly about the opportunity to step away from politics and onto a team of big-cause, low-ego people who want to build stuff and serve students and plan for the future,” he said. “I just think that Gator Nation is going to have a massive global impact.”

Sasse also calls himself “an academic freedom and free speech guy,” and said he learned in greater detail over recent weeks about the tensions on campus over the past year.

“It is incredibly important that speech and dissent and debate flourish at an institution of higher learning,” he said. “One of the reasons you seek higher education is to encounter ideas you didn’t already know and those ideas can’t be centrally regulated. The dynamism of debate is what produces discovery.”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.