U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska talks during an open forum at the University of Florida
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska talks during an open forum Oct. 10, 2022, at the University of Florida he was chosen as the only finalist to be the school's next president. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

The 19-year-old Florida college student wanted to make sure the 50-year-old Nebraska politician knew the stakes.

“The University of Florida has a long history of not being welcoming to people like myself,” said Oscar Santiago Perez, addressing U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse during Sasse’s interview last week to become UF president.

Santiago Perez, a member of the student senate and the university’s LGBTQ advisory committee, reminded Sasse of the infamous Johns Committee, the Florida legislative panel that tried to purge gay people from UF and other campuses in the 1950s and ‘60s. He referred to Sasse’s well-publicized stand against same-sex marriage, and the senator’s efforts to dismiss the resulting criticism as part of the culture wars.

“The right for people like me to marry and exist in this society without being discriminated against is not a mere culture war, senator,” Santiago Perez said. “It is a topic of human rights.”

He turned to the university’s board of trustees: “If Dr. Sasse is confirmed,” he said, “I hope he understands he will have a huge hill to climb — a hill of trust.”

Sasse said later he appreciated the counsel and acknowledged the task before him. He said he embraced and respected all people and pledged to divorce himself from partisan politics as UF’s 13th president.

But following weeks of high emotions over his selection for that job, as UF’s 13th president, many are waiting to see exactly how well he’ll address the deep rifts created by his candidacy. If the state Board of Governors confirms his selection as expected on Thursday, he’ll begin his presidency in early 2023.

One person Sasse recently called for advice has walked a similar path. John Thrasher, the former Florida State University president, had previously served as Florida House speaker, a state senator and chairperson of the Florida Republican Party.

The early days of Thrasher’s FSU candidacy in 2014 were also filled with terse questions about his politics, student protests and a faculty senate resolution against him. But by the time he retired in 2020, many students expressed fondness for him and the faculty senate leader at the time said he enjoyed their working relationship.

“A guy like (Sasse), in my opinion, I think once he gets through the rocky start — which will inevitably happen when you have those kinds of credentials — I think he’ll be fine,” Thrasher said. “I think he’ll be great, in fact.”

Sen. Ben Sasse listens to public comments during a Nov. 1 meeting where the University of Florida board of trustees named him president-elect of the school.
Sen. Ben Sasse listens to public comments during a Nov. 1 meeting where the University of Florida board of trustees named him president-elect of the school. Most of the speakers voiced opposition to his candidacy, a sign he will have fences to mend — and more listening to do — when he starts the job early next year. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Thrasher said he, too, left partisan activities at the door when he became a university president. But he added that a background in politics isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sasse’s national connections could be good for UF in securing research funding, Thrasher said. “A big part of this job is understanding politics.”

His advice to Sasse during their call: Spend time meeting the people who think he’s wrong for the job.

“Let them understand who you are,” Thrasher said. “Don’t sit in your office — and I know he’s not — and expect people to like you.”

Thrasher said he understood the fears people have, but added that hard work and time could overcome them.

“When they don’t know you, they look at your resume,” he said. “And for me, anyway, it was John Thrasher, 70 years old, which was pretty old for starting out to be a university president. Republican. Former chairman of the Republican party. Things like that.… They didn’t know me, and I think that’s one of the same things you can say about Senator Sasse. They really don’t know him, they don’t know his heart.”

Thrasher said Sasse would also need to show results to bring people together and have an agenda of things he wants to accomplish in his first year.

Faith Corbett, a student government member and leader in UF’s minority party, predicted distrust of Sasse will remain.

“I think there’s a lack of hope for the future because we haven’t really heard action items from Sasse,” she said. “We’ve just heard him talk about sentiments and how he’s willing to accept these students and communities. But how are you doing that? And how are you initiating that yourself?”

Sasse has said he would meet with the university’s LGBTQ presidential advisory committee, and its members said they are ready to work with him.

Santiago Perez said he hopes to see Sasse in the campus community — including at PRIDE events. He said he would like to see Sasse will take action on issues like expanding access to gender-neutral restrooms or making it less cumbersome for the university to recognize name changes for transgender individuals.

“There has to be action put to the words he will now be saying, and continued commitment to the communities that felt harmed in the past and continue to feel fearful of what he might do,” Santiago Perez said.

Rachel Hartnett, president of the graduate assistant union who spoke against Sasse at the trustees meeting, said she hopes he is willing to listen. For graduate students specifically, she said, that includes considering that wages have not kept up with the cost of living — something she was unsure if traditional conservatives would be amenable to hearing.

But she said she was encouraged that the Republican senator was willing to be censured by his own party when he voted last yearto convict former President Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection.

“He’s shown he has the ability to stand up for what he thinks is morally and ethically right, so I hope he’s willing to do the same when it comes to the University of Florida,” Hartnett said. “He’s going to have to show he’s not beholden to Tallahassee or the governor…. I don’t want him to be nonpartisan, I want him to stand up for UF.”

Sasse said outgoing UF president Kent Fuchs would remain an advisor to him after Fuchs steps into a faculty role in January.

Though Fuchs at times was at odds with faculty — particularly during the last year when questions of academic freedom emerged — many now see him in a more favorable light when compared to Sasse.

UF’s faculty union chapter president Paul Ortiz, who spoke at a recent protest against Sasse, said he hoped the senator would take some cues from Fuchs, who is known for his friendly manner and close interactions with the campus community.

“He has got to learn our tradition,” Ortiz said. “He’s got to come down to our level. He’s got to do what Kent Fuchs did to a certain extent and roll up his sleeves. He’s got to find out what makes this great university run.”

Even so, Ortiz said, the president does not define a university. Nor does the administration or the board of trustees.

“It’s more about what we need to do,” he said, summoning themes from “Moby Dick,” the classic novel about a whaling ship captain whose fanatical impulses lead to tragedy.

“I feel like we’re the sailors on the Pequod — faculty, students and staff,” said Ortiz, a history professor. “We’ll keep the ship running, even if they appointed Captain Ahab. We’re going to do what we’ve been doing for generations.”

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