University of Florida inaugurates Ben Sasse as 13th president
University of Florida's 13th President Ben Sasse gives his inaugural address at University Auditorium in Gainesville, Fla., Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2023. (Gabriel Velasquez-Neira /Fresh Take Florida)

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A ceremony full of pomp and symbolism that dated to the Middle Ages.

Ben Sasse, the former Republican U.S. Senator for Nebraska, was formally inaugurated Thursday as the 13th president of the University of Florida during a ceremony full of pomp and symbolism that dated to the Middle Ages.

Sasse said he was focused on the future of higher education – and the role in it for Florida’s flagship public university.

“Too much of higher education wants to resist change; too many institutions are complacent,” Sasse told the crowd of hundreds. He added: “The digital revolution is going to upend higher education in the next decade. Most of higher education doesn’t understand what’s coming.”

Sasse said most attention is paid to Ivy League universities but told the audience of mostly UF faculty and administrators: “You all have been kicking butts. This place has been relatively insulated against complacency and self-satisfaction.”

Sasse officially took office as UF’s president in February. He said he was persuaded to accept the job and retire from the Senate partly by conversations with the Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini.

In a meeting afterward with a small group of reporters, Sasse said UF has not yet deactivated a campus chapter of a pro-Palestinian student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration directed the university to do so last month.

DeSantis has made unqualified support for Israel part of his Republican presidential campaign. Citing conversations with the governor, the State University System said a statement of support from the group’s national parent organization that it was “part of” the resistance against Israel violated a law against offering “material support” to terrorists. Legal experts have expressed skepticism that such a shutdown would be constitutional.

“Obviously student organizations couldn’t be involved in something like material support for terrorism, but students at the University of Florida can have any number of positions about pro-Israeli politics or anti-Israeli politics,” Sasse said. “We vigorously defend both free speech and we’re going to invest university resources in guaranteeing the safety of our students.”

UF has the largest population of Jewish students among any university in the United States.

Sasse said all student organizations at UF that were in place before the state’s memo on Oct. 27 were still in place Thursday. It wasn’t clear whether Sasse was refusing to comply with the order, had reached some compromise over the issue or simply hadn’t followed the directive yet. When former UF President Kent Fuchs said he was powerless to resist some directives from DeSantis, he was derided as a president in Gator Nation who wouldn’t bite.

During the inaugural ceremony, former UF presidents Fuchs and Bernie Machen – together with Hosseini – installed and presented the symbols of the office, including a presidential chain whose symbolism dates back to the Middle Ages as badges of office.

Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System and the official who ordered UF to deactivate the pro-Palestinian student organization, wished Sasse good luck as the sector of higher education changes.

“The last time you were welcomed into a new position, it was in a ceremony in the United States Capitol when you were sworn in as a United States senator from Nebraska,” Rodrigues said. “Look around; this isn’t the Capitol; you’re not looking at the Senate, but what you have is even better.”

It was quiet outside the auditorium Thursday with no sign of protests. In October 2022, when Sasse was being selected as president, hundreds of rowdy students drove him off a stage as Sasse talked about higher education issues that included his opposition to forgiving student loans and support for tenure reviews for faculty.

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Claire Grunewald reporting. This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.

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