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A series of pounding fists at Ben Sasse’s office door welcomed the new president to campus Monday as he began his tenure as president of the University of Florida.
Bryn Taylor, co-president of graduate assistant organization Graduate Assistants United, rattled the wood in hopes of delivering a list of demands to Sasse after an hour of protest. But much to the frustration of her and around 100 people on the other side, there was no answer from the man of the hour.
Around 100 protesters crowded Tigert Hall, the university’s administration building, to protest Sasse’s first day as UF’s 13th president before marching inside to his office door. The group — a coalition of students, faculty, staff and organizations like Graduate Assistants United and Young Democratic Socialists of America — hosted speakers and chanted outside the building before occupying the hallway in hopes of delivering the list of demands directly to Sasse’s office.
Protestors waited for an hour before taping copies of their list on the walls, doors and ceilings of the administration building and leaving without speaking to Sasse or a secretary.
Police and representatives from UF communications agreed to let three people into the office, but protesters waited in hopes that they would allow the full group to deliver the demands.
Protests have followed Sasse, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, since the announcement of his pending presidency in October 2022, when UF revealed he was the sole finalist for its months-long presidential search. Sasse first visited the university as the sole finalist for a Q&A forum with students and faculty — an event that was interrupted by 300 protestors in Emerson Alumni Hall.
Cassie Edmonds, a 22-year UF biology senior, said she was upset and confused by the pick given Sasse’s past comments on gay marriage, abortion access and other issues.
“I just really don’t know how they ended up choosing this racist, homophobic dude from Nebraska,” Edmonds said.
Students have expressed repeated worry about Sasse’s history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric while he was a senator, including his expressed “disappointment” over the 2015 Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriage a constitutionally protected right.
Protestors asked Sasse to commit to a series of demands as UF president which include:
∎ Market equity raises for staff, graduate assistants and all UF-affiliated workers
∎ Publicly disavow attacks from Tallahassee on academic and free speech
∎ Maintain pre-existing commitments to inclusivity, equity and diversity
∎ Commit to protecting tenure for UF faculty
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in January that he will defund diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at universities after requiring campuses to report spending on DEI and critical race theory programs.
In an email sent out Monday morning, Sasse promised he would use his time at UF to champion viewpoint diversity, harness the power of AI, “make Florida the Silicon Valley of agriculture technology” and more.
“I am enthusiastic about working alongside you in the months and years to come,” he wrote, “as we transform lives by pursuing truth, beauty, and excellence, by discovering world-changing breakthroughs, and by passing on to our students a life-long love of learning.”
Sasse was selected by a 15-person search committee as former president Kent Fuchs’ successor in a controversial and private process. Sasse was named the sole finalist of the search, with other finalists refusing to have their names announced unless selected for the role. The search process was able to be kept private thanks to a bipartisan bill passed by the Florida Legislature last year.
Sasse’s transition to the presidency has been as controversial as the search that found him. Notably, UF spent $300,000 to install a new pool in the mansion where he’ll live.
Protesters like Taylor were especially upset by the splurge given graduate assistant salaries, which Taylor said aren’t livable. UF pays its graduate assistants a minimum stipend of $17,000 for nine-month appointments and $22,753 for full-time work.
“Graduate assistants come up to us and tell us, ‘I have to feed my family of four on $10 a day,” Taylor said, “and Ben Sasse gets a f****ing pool.”
Abe Goldman, a former UF geology and African studies professor, said he worries Sasse could restrict freedom of speech and academic freedom at UF.
“It’s the overall tenor of eliminating or reducing freedom of thought, freedom of research, freedom of expression,” he said, “and basically leaving us with the freedom to agree with him, and that’s it.”
Linda Lewis, a 67-year-old faculty emeritus, said she hopes Sasse will listen to the concerns of protestors. She worries about DeSantis’ role in higher education and said she thinks Sasse will prioritize the desires of the governor over UF faculty, students and staff.
The goal of the protest, she said, is to make their demands heard.
“Can we get him to listen?”
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: UF students, faculty welcome Ben Sasse to campus with demands, protest