How Ben Sasse Spent His First 7 Weeks as U. of Florida President
Benjamin E. Sasse began his first day as the president of the University of Florida early — 6:45 a.m. — with a phone call. That was how Sasse spent most of the day, in fact: on the phone, with a meeting and a Zoom call mixed in.
But who was on the other end of the line remains a mystery, according to daily appointment logs of Sasse’s first seven weeks in office that were obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request. Screenshots of Sasse’s calendar show blocks of time — some of them several hours long — labeled only “call” or “meeting,” adding to the uncertainty expressed by some on campus about how the president is spending his time. Sasse has made few public appearances and declined a number of interview requests from local media; a month into his tenure, the Tampa Bay Times reported, fliers with Sasse’s photo and the words “MISSING!” and “Have you seen this man?” appeared around campus.
The former U.S. senator from Nebraska, a Republican, took office at a tumultuous time for higher education in the Sunshine State. Republicans in the Florida Legislature have put forth several high-profile bills, including a sweeping set of higher-ed reforms that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on Monday. That new law prohibits public institutions in the state from spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and bans general-education courses that “distort significant historical events,” teach “identity politics,” or are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, or economic inequities.” And a bill that would require the state’s public colleges to have offices overseeing campus-speaker events and to ensure that “multiple, divergent, and opposing perspectives” are represented, is now on Governor DeSantis’s desk; he has until the end of the month to take action.
Sasse’s calendar shows meetings with the Board of Trustees, the Faculty Senate, and one-on-one appointments with several of the Gainesville campus’s deans and the president of University of Florida Health. Sasse traveled to West Palm Beach for a weekend meeting with the university foundation’s board, where he met with board members and the alumni Chris Malachowsky, a co-founder of the graphics company Nvidia and David W. Nelms, the former chief executive of Discover Financial. He also made trips to Jacksonville to announce plans for a new graduate campus, to Jupiter, Fla., to visit the university’s Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, and to Nashville for the SEC men’s basketball tournament and a meeting with fellow leaders in the conference. A number of Florida sports games are also on Sasse’s calendar, some marked “FYI.”
But the majority of reserved time in Sasse’s calendar is devoted to engagements marked only “call” or “meeting,” with no indication of with whom he’s meeting or speaking, on what topic, or where the meeting takes place. For example, a four-hour block from 12:45 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, February 28, says, simply, “Calls.” A university spokesman did not respond to questions about how Sasse would know the participants and context of a meeting based on the descriptions in the calendar. Several student-government senators told the Bay Times that they hadn’t seen the president on campus; The Independent Florida Alligator reported last month that Sasse hadn’t responded to several interview requests and dodged student reporters in person twice.
Amanda J. Phalin, the chair of the Faculty Senate, told the Alligator that she’d been in regular contact with Sasse, whom she often sees in the early morning, and that she’s also observed him in Tallahassee meeting with lawmakers. He’s also appeared twice at the Faculty Senate, including on February 16, with this note in his calendar: “Role: President’s Report/remarks,” and he hosted a dinner for leaders of the Faculty Senate on March 21. Sasse’s leadership style, Phalin said, has been different from that of his predecessor, W. Kent Fuchs, who would often interact with students on campus.
“The way that they are personality-wise and interacting with folks is just a very different style,” Phalin told the Alligator. “Neither good nor bad, but very different. And I think it’s a big change for people to get used to.” (She did not return The Chronicle‘s request for comment.)
A university spokesman told the Bay Times this month that Sasse takes a run through campus before arriving at his office between 4:30 and 5 a.m. The president also walks 10 to 12 miles per day, taking calls as he does, “rather than sitting still on the phone,” the spokesman said, adding that Sasse also has a second office on the campus.
Sasse was named the sole finalist for the presidency in October 2022, in a process some faculty members criticized for its secrecy. A Florida law signed last year allows public colleges to keep secret the names of candidates who apply for leadership posts.
Andy Thomason contributed to this story.