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People are talking about a 2020 speech by Ben Sasse. Here’s what he said.

Students walk through Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida campus on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Gainesville. [ LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Times ]

When University of Florida officials announced last week that U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was the sole finalist to be the school’s next president, it naturally triggered efforts to examine his past.

A Harvard-trained historian, Sasse spent five years as president of Midland University ― a small, private Lutheran school in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska ― where he gained a reputation as a relentless reformer.

An outspoken critic of Donald Trump, Sasse was one of the few Republicans to vote in favor of Trump’s impeachment in 2018.

But these facts leave little fodder for prognostication when it comes to the dangers of murder hornets or the burgeoning field of rodent psychology.

In 2020, the second-term senator expounded on these and other topics in a virtual commencement address to graduating students at his alma mater, Fremont High School.

The meandering and energetic speech lasting seven minutes offered little context or clarity on these points, but may offer a glimpse into the mind of UF’s future leader. Asked about the speech during his Monday visit to the Gainesville campus, Sasse acknowledged that parts of it fell flat.

Here are some highlights:

On modern psychology:

  • “There are a whole bunch of people who make a whole bunch of money by just trying to help other people forget high school,” Sasse said. “They’re called psychologists.”
  • Those that aren’t in the business of self-induced amnesia, he added, “just research hamsters who got lost in mazes, which come to think of it, is a lot like high school.”
  • “Those hamsters also need their own psychologist now.”

On nominative determinism:

  • “If an insect grows up being called a murder hornet, you can’t be surprised when they actually start ripping the heads off of honeybees,” Sasse said. “We all sort of do grow into our names.”
  • “That’s why everyone named Jeremy is the worst,” he added. “Sorry, Jeremy. It’s not my fault. Blame your mom and dad.”

On Carole Baskin:

  • “The Tiger King lady definitely killed her husband.”

On the importance of upper body strength:

  • “Once or twice a week in real-world life, someone’s going to ask you to climb a giant rope,” Sasse told the graduates.
  • Every now and then the rope might be a metaphor for a real-life challenge that they’ll face as adults, he explained. “But honestly, most of the time, it’s just a big rope and you have to climb it.”
  • “Gym teachers, those of you who chose to do it as a calling, and those of you who’ve been forced into it as a calling, I salute you.”

On silver linings:

  • “You’re going to remember your high school graduation.” Sasse told the Fremont graduates. “You’re graduating in your living room and you’re having a Senator come and talk to you about some dude named Joe Exotic.”

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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