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Sen. Ben Sasse was a university president in Nebraska. How will he be at UF?

Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [ University of Florida ]

After beginning its nationwide search for a new president in secret, the University of Florida is going public as it begins to vet Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, the lone finalist for the job.

With a campus visit and interviews scheduled in the coming days, many will look to Sasse’s only previous experience as a top college administrator ― the five years he spent as president of Midland University in his home state.

Midland is tiny, religiously affiliated and striving for more recognition. UF is large, public and nationally ranked, the mighty flagship of Florida’s university system.

But as the public assesses what kind of president Sasse would be in Florida, some see clues from his time on the small campus north of Omaha.

Sasse has been widely credited for turning around the Lutheran university in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska.

He was 37 when he became Midland’s president in 2009. Enrollment was at a historic low and the university was operating at a $3.5 million loss, according to the school’s tax filings.

“Through May of ’12, there were regular periods where it wasn’t clear we would make it,” Sasse told The Washington Times in 2015. “I would wake up in cold sweats twice a night, multiple nights a week from 2009 to 2012.”

Steve Bullock, who worked as the school’s vice president of student affairs from 2010 to 2015, remembers Sasse as a tireless worker who pulled the aging institution into the 21st century.

During Bullock’s first week, Sasse invited him to a working breakfast to discuss how to get students more engaged in the classroom. Sasse’s critiques of modern higher education, recently expounded upon in an Atlantic op-ed, haven’t changed much since then, Bullock said.

“(He said) that higher ed was in a unique position to be a more influential, powerful agent for change than it had ever been,” Bullock recalled, “(but) you can’t expect students to sit in a lecture hall and passively absorb information anymore … higher ed just has to evolve.”

Sasse encouraged professors to eschew their lecterns and use classroom time for hands-on learning; he overhauled the school’s core curriculum to better fit students’ needs; and he reached out to local businesses to secure internships where students could apply lessons from the classroom, Bullock said.

A natural consensus-builder, Sasse won over faculty and administrators to his vision, Bullock said. “And we see students getting more engaged, and so our retention rates go up.”

Federal data indicates that retention rates actually fell at Midland during that period.

Still, parents and high school counselors took notice of the change and the school started attracting more students.

In 2011, Midland rolled out a program promising that students who met certain criteria would graduate in four years ― or the school would cover any additional cost of tuition, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

That fall, Midland saw the largest increase in freshmen enrollment in the school’s 130-year history, according to the World-Herald.

Enrollment continued to improve over Sasse’s tenure but graduation rates did not. Just half of Midland students graduated in six years when he was president.

Colleagues remember Sasse as a marketing savant and a prodigious fundraiser. In his first year as president, he rebranded Midland Lutheran College to Midland University and invested heavily in varsity sports.

Steve Pribnow, a member of Midland’s board of directors at the time Sasse was hired, said he remains an admirer of the senator.

“He had a tremendous impact at Midland,” Pribnow said.. “The trajectory was not good. He did the turnaround.”

He said Sasse’s strategy of adding sports teams amid budget problems seemed counterintuitive, but the four-year graduation guarantee helped counter that. “It worked to bring enough tuition and bring the numbers up, and all of a sudden people’s friends were coming here and their kids were coming here,” he said.

In 2012 and 2013, Midland saw its best fundraising years to that point ― bringing in roughly $18.2 million in contributions, more than the previous five years combined.

When Sasse left in 2015, full-time enrollment had doubled to nearly 1,300, according to federal data. The school that had narrowly avoided bankruptcy had restructured its debt and was operating at a healthy profit.

Pribnow said the school also had to look at its expenses and Sasse had to make some “tough decisions” regarding small programs that weren’t bringing in a return on investment. He said Sasse also ended tenure at Midland, but worked with the faculty in doing so.

“He gave every opportunity for faculty to be successful, but they had to produce,” Pribnow said. “Just like any other successful business.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has written on Sasse’s Senate record, said he thought the choice could help UF after a year in which academic freedom issues came into the national spotlight.

“There is the recent controversy that everybody is watching over there,” he said. “I think he’d be sensitive to the free speech aspect of that, to what professors can do in an environment in terms of academic freedom and probably open up debate about that. I think he’s very principled, so I think he’d resist too much outside influence on the university. … I think he’s independent and doesn’t need this job.”

Though he doesn’t agree with Sasse always politically, Tobias said he brings the skills needed to be a successful university president.

“My impression is he’s very smart, he’s very articulate,” he said. “I think he’s represented Nebraska well. His colleagues respect him. He’s polite and willing to be very direct on the issues. I think that’s very valuable, especially in the university environment. He has some pretty conservative views, but I think he’s open-minded and willing to debate and talk about issues.”

Not everyone thinks Sasse’s previous public stances on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change will make him compatible with UF’s culture. A student-led protest has been planned outside the location where he will meet with students on campus Monday.

Gabriel Hament, a UF law student, wrote to board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini expressing concerns over Sasse’s comments following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision recognizing same-sex marriage and what they mean for the school’s LGBTQ community.

“He’s publicly announced his prejudicial views of same-sex couples and raising children, which is incompatible with UF’s internal policies with respect to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Hament said of Sasse.

And while Sasse was successful at fundraising in Midland, Hament said he thought bringing him to Florida would be a “massive strategic error” for a big chunk of donors.

“They’re going to close their checkbooks,” he said.

Aron Ali-McClory, a sophomore majoring in political science and a member of UF’s Young Democratic Socialists, said the choice was “shocking” to many UF students.

“Being at a small liberal arts university, which Midland is, is not the same as being at a Top 5 public research university that produces billions in research every year,” Ali-McClory said. “It’s pretty much the same as saying someone who’s running a small corner store is fit to run a Fortune 500 company. Yes, they’re related, but not transferable.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter and Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

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