ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Nebraska U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse won final approval Wednesday to become the 13th president of the University of Florida, capping a swift and sometimes contentious process.
Sasse, a Republican, was confirmed for the post by the state university system Board of Governors on a voice vote. Sasse will leave the Senate — he’s two years into his second term — before taking the Florida school’s helm on Feb. 6.
The vote held at the University of South Florida in Tampa came just over a month after Sasse was revealed as the sole finalist for the job. That followed a lengthier, confidential search process that drew a vote of no confidence from the Florida Faculty Senate.
Questions also arose about how Sasse’s oft-stated opposition to gay marriage would mesh with concerns about inclusion raised by the university’s LGBTQ students and faculty. Sasse’s status as a politician also drew opposition.
Sasse told the governors Wednesday that he will not be involved in partisan politics in any form and that he wants people from diverse backgrounds at the school with more than 50,000 students and a presence in every Florida county.
Earlier meetings with Sasse at the university’s Gainesville campus drew loud protests from students and faculty, many concerned about how gay issues would be viewed.
“We want no bullying. We want no intimidation,” Sasse said Wednesday. “I want us to be a place that has open hearts and thick skin.”
Sasse added that vigorous debate over ideas is a key part of the university’s mission.
“I want us to be a place that challenges young men and women with new ideas, even if they are uncomfortable,” he said. “We want the University of Florida to be a place that embraces debate.”
Sasse, 50, was previously president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, which has just over 1,600 students. He attended Harvard University and earned a doctorate in history from Yale University.
The Board of Governors had nothing but praise for Sasse’s selection, with board member Tim Cerio saying the senator has won over many skeptics on campus.
“People need to listen to him and give him a shot,” Cerio said.
The University of Florida Board of Trustees had unanimously approved Sasse as the school’s next president Nov. 1. Officials said Sasse’s compensation package amounts to about $1.6 million a year.
Sasse has not yet officially stepped down from his Senate post. It’s also unclear exactly when current President Kent Fuchs, who has been Florida’s president since 2015 and has overseen the school’s rising academic reputation among public universities nationally, will officially step down.
The meeting was moved up one day because of the approach of Tropical Storm Nicole, forecast to become a hurricane before reaching Florida Thursday. Sasse spoke to the board via remote video hookup.
News4JAX producer Reagan Fink contributed to this story.