U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse faced a sea of jeering protesters when he visited the University of Florida as the only finalist to be its next president.
Those in the crowd on Oct. 10 said the selection process had been too secret, and that Sasse lacked the experience to lead one of the nation’s top research universities. But their overriding concern was his stance on LGBTQ issues, based largely on statements he had made over the years.
Students waved rainbow and pastel flags. Homemade signs called him a “homophobe.” And Sasse came prepared to respond.
In three public forums, he said the UF presidency would be a different calling than his congressional job representing fellow Nebraskans.
He said his “federal political commitments” do not define who he is — that someone could bring whomever they love to his dinner table and they could all have different thoughts on politics, but still respect each other.
He said he wanted to get past disputes about pronouns, “and get onto the verbs of what this institution can and should and will build together.”
For many, his words rang hollow, an indication that the 50-year-old Sasse will have some convincing to do if UF’s board of trustees gives him the job next month. He returns to campus for a formal, public interview on Nov. 1.
The senator’s remarks in Gainesville don’t erase what he’s said in the past, said Oscar Santiago Perez, treasurer of the Pride Student Union and a member of the school’s LGBTQ+ advisory group.
“I think that was him being a politician, trying to deflect any potential criticism…. It’s definitely something I’m going to have to see to believe.”
This week, the UF Student Senate passed a resolution condemning the search committee and the student body president for her role on it in selecting Sasse as the sole finalist, as first reported by the Independent Alligator, UF’s student newspaper. The resolution cited Sasses’s anti-LGBTQ stances.
The concerns primarily come from remarks he has made about same-sex marriage.
In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision guaranteeing same-sex marriage as a legal right, Sasse called the ruling “a disappointment to Nebraskans who understand that marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mom and dad.” He said voters in each state should decide the issue.
Earlier this year, in comments to reporters, he criticized the proposed Respect for Marriage Act, which aims to repeal restrictions on same-sex marriage signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Sasse said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had used the proposal “to divide America with culture wars” and called it “just the same bulls—.”
His Senate website says he advocates for “Nebraska values,” including the “sanctity of marriage.”
Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Sasse’s home state, said the group was heartened to see people in Florida protesting the senator.
“He has never been a friend of our community,” Swatsworth said. “When people say things like ‘Oh, love the sinner, hate the sin’ … that is still harmful. That still leads people to question their value.”
Sasse, she added, “has not been approachable as a leader from our perspective.”
Santiago Perez, the PRIDE treasurer, said the university has seen progress under outgoing president Kent Fuchs, who attended Pride welcoming events and adopted an initiative for gender-neutral restrooms.
He said Sasse’s comments felt tone deaf given a history at UF that includes the infamous Johns Committee.
Named after state Sen. Charley Johns, who briefly served as acting governor, the committee was formed in 1956 to investigate and root out communists from civil rights groups and academia. After failing to find communists, the panel, led by Johns, turned its attention to the LGBTQ community.
In the summer of 1958, committee investigators arrived at UF, interrogating faculty and students they suspected were gay, and monitoring public bathrooms and parties.
At least 15 faculty and 50 students were believed to have left UF after being targeted. The committee also investigated the University of South Florida and Florida State University, identifying faculty they perceived to be gay.
Andy Huse, a librarian and historian at USF, said the committee was a reaction by rural lawmakers who had grown concerned about their interests as residents flocked to Florida cities in the years after World War II.
“By banding together, they were able to prevent Florida from moving forward in a lot of different ways,” Huse said, adding that many of them harbored a deep distrust of higher education.
Their movement lost steam after the Johns Committee published a 1964 report titled “Homosexuality and citizenship in Florida,” also known as the “purple pamphlet.”
UF’s human resources website acknowledges that chapter in school history, pointing out the “unfortunate aspect” that Johns had the “cooperation and complicity” of the university’s then-president J. Wayne Reitz, whose name is on the student union building.
Gordon Van Owen, president of UF’s LGBTQ alumni group, said many alumni are concerned about the direction the university would take under Sasse.
“I think if you look at the university’s history with our community, UF has never been this refuge for LGBTQ+ students,” he said. “Our community has always found a way to persevere and continue to grow and support one another, and that effort will certainly continue forward regardless of who the next university president is.”
Rahul Patel, chair of the search committee that selected Sasse, said in an email that as a member of UF’s board of trustees, he wanted to assure the community. The university’s “values and our policies will continue to support our LGBTQ students, faculty and staff — and their families — as vital members of the UF community,” he said.
Patel said he sees Sasse as “a leader willing to wrestle with nuance and engage with ideas different than his own.”
Amanda Phalin, president of UF’s faculty senate, said she understands the concerns, but hopes people give Sasse a chance. She said she considers herself a progressive who disagrees with his politics but found him seemingly open-minded.
It was Phalin who greeted Sasse with the first question he faced during his Oct. 10 campus visit, asking how his views squared with the university’s nondiscrimination policy. Faculty members, she told him, were “deeply concerned.”
Swatsworth, the OutNebraska director, said she hopes students stay engaged as the selection process continues.
“Seeing young people use their voices is always a powerful thing,” she said. “I would just encourage people to continue asking the tough questions.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.