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U of Florida student president who favored Sasse is targeted for impeachment

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

Days after the University of Florida’s board of trustees selected U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse as the school’s next president, student leaders are moving to impeach the student body president who voted in favor of the Nebraska politician.

Their formal resolution, dated Wednesday, contends that Lauren Lemasters, who sits on the UF board of trustees as part of her student government role, neglected her duty to represent student voices. The document was presented to Lemasters and student senate president Olivia Green on Thursday.

Lemasters could not immediately be reached for comment.

Many UF students have vehemently objected to the prospect of a Sasse presidency in the weeks since he was named the sole finalist for the job, with concerns centering around his stance against same-sex marriage.

During Sasse’s first visit to campus on Oct. 10, hundreds of students swarmed Emerson Alumni Hall as Lemasters emceed a forum with him in the building’s ballroom.

The student senate — a body of 100 elected senators representing more than 50,000 students — last month took a vote of no confidence in Lemasters for her role on the search committee in selecting Sasse, and urged her to vote no at Tuesday’s board meeting to confirm him.

Protesters showed up during Lemasters’ office hours, presenting their concerns about Sasse, highlighting his track record on LGBTQ issues and its impact on students among others. Before the final vote at Tuesday’s trustees meeting, the majority of public comments, many from students, were against selecting Sasse, and dozens of others protested outside.

Student Body President Lauren Lemasters directs a question to Sen. Ben Sasse during a University of Florida board of trustees meeting
Student Body President Lauren Lemasters directs a question to Sen. Ben Sasse during a University of Florida board of trustees meeting at Emerson Alumni Hall in Gainesville on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Still, Lemasters voted in favor of Sasse, helping to make the vote unanimous.

“I want to start by thanking you for, throughout this process, your candor and just your willingness to listen to not only me but to the concerns and the desires of the students for the next president,” she told Sasse during trustees’ comments before the vote. “You’ve shown when I needed one-on-one time just to discuss with you how our students are feeling, you’ve been open to that.”

She added that Sasse would need to climb “a hill of trust,” echoing the words of Oscar Santiago Perez, a student senator and member of PRIDE, who spoke earlier.

“I look forward to seeing you ready to sit down and listen and learn from these students: to hear their concerns, to hear their big ideas, to really bring our university together in moving forward and treating them with dignity, respect and care,” Lemasters said. “Now it’s up to you to live up to that.”

Several times in recent weeks, Sasse acknowledged the opposition to his stances but said he would embrace and respect all people as UF’s president and move beyond the positions he has taken as a politician.

According to the resolution written by six members of the student senate minority party and signed by 17 others, Lemasters‘ vote constituted malfeasance.

The resolution points to student body statutes, which state the president must not lose “confidence by their elected colleagues within (Student Government) in their ability to have an effective voice for representing their constituents” or “create a reasonable fear that the conduct could be repeated during the (Student Government) official’s term.”

It accused Lemasters of“blatantly ignoring the request of the student body as directly communicated to her.”

Gabriela Montes, deputy leader of the minority party and an author of the resolution,said the decision to file it was not made lightly.

“Impeaching is relatively extreme,” she said. “However, it came to a point where, after seeing the effort the student body put into protesting and making sure their voice was loud and bold and very clearly understood, the decision wasn’t that difficult to make.”

Top members of Lemasters’ majority party also condemned her vote, including Daniel Baldell, the student body vice president, and Green, the senate president. Baldell issued a statement on Instagram, as first reported by the Independent Alligator, saying he could not “stand idly by” when “someone who is a threat to the LGBTQ+ community is about to occupy the highest post on campus.”

Faith Corbett, leader of the minority party and an author of the resolution, said she felt the vote was selfish and that Lemasters did not do enough to seek student opinions, such as holding public forums or seeking student input.

“She saw it from a perspective that I feel like happened behind closed doors,” Corbett said. “Yes, it is hard to take account for 60,000 students, but I think when you have an active body of students protesting, the least you can do for the student body is abstain.”

Santiago Perez, a member of the minority party who spoke at the trustees meeting, said he supports the resolution. “I think that this is the natural climax of the student body president’s neglect of her duty, which is to represent the student body,” he said.

The next steps in the process are hearings, where Lemasters will have a chance to defend her actions.

The senate will be split in two — an impeachment body led by the senate president and a trial body. If two-thirds of the impeachment body votes to impeach, Lemasters would be suspended until completion of a trial and the student body vice president would serve as president. For Lemasters to be officially ousted, a vote of three-fourths of the trial body would be required.

As a senator representing the College of Arts and Sciences, Montes said she feels the overwhelming student sentiment regarding the search has not been listened to.

“I hope people understand the effects of approving someone like Dr. Ben Sasse,” she said. “Recognizing the fact that students right now feel threatened only highlights that students will continue to feel threatened way down the line.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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