campus choices

UF President Ben Sasse: Negotiations with ‘the people who happen to scream the loudest,’ are unwise

‘We support folks’ free speech rights, but that includes the right to make an ass and an idiot of yourself,’ Sasse tells JI in conversation about campus protests

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Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) questions witnesses during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on February 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

LOS ANGELES — Last week, while college administrators across the U.S. seemed paralyzed over how to respond to campus anti-Israel protesters, one school weighed in with a simple statement that served as a counterweight to the hemming and hawing of elite private universities. “The University of Florida is not a daycare, and we do not treat protesters like children,” a UF spokesperson said, declaring that students in an unauthorized encampment would face disciplinary action if they did not leave. 

The statement achieved every PR flak’s dream: It went viral. Much of the positive attention heaped on the school landed on Ben Sasse, the former Nebraska senator and Yale-educated historian who has been the president of UF since early 2023. (A guest on Fox News on Monday praised Sasse and said, “Don’t be an ass, do it like Sasse.”)

“It isn’t that complicated to affirm free speech and free assembly, which are fundamental American rights and something that institutionally we’re committed to. But that doesn’t mean that the people who are the loudest are the ones who don’t have to obey the rules that everybody else does,” Sasse told Jewish Insider on Monday in a conversation at the Milken Institute Global Forum in Los Angeles. 

For many universities, the seven months since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel that sparked a war in the Middle East and touched off a wave of antisemitism in the U.S. have been marked by instability and indecision. Sasse took a stand early, condemning Hamas’ attack soon after Oct. 7 and raising his voice against antisemitism. But when it comes to the encampment on the Gainesville campus, Sasse said his response is only about enforcing rules and not going after students for having opinions with which he disagrees.

Campus rules allow tents on one occasion, said Sasse — tailgating during football season, when tents are allowed only in certain places and for a particular amount of time. “Why would a specific group of protesters get special license that nobody else gets?” he asked. 

“We support folks’ free speech rights, but that includes the right to make an ass and an idiot of yourself, and a lot of the protesters say ridiculously, historically and geographically ignorant things,” Sasse said. There should be a role for universities and educators to play in responding to the content of what protesters are saying, he added, especially when some of their language echoes terrorist talking points.

“We don’t start by trying to prohibit speech, but we do want to ask fundamental questions about whether or not enough education is happening. The paraglider memes that are now replacing Che Guevara on T-shirts is so bizarre. Which paragliders are we talking about — the savages who raped teenage girls at a concert? That’s who you want to be the icon and the sort of shorthand for the movement you’re defending?” Sasse asked. “At the end of the day, there was an instigator that moved on 10/7, and it’s just amazing how quickly stupid and reductionistic so many of the protests have become.”

Sasse, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard and a doctorate in history at Yale, declined to comment specifically on how those or other schools are handling similar issues. But he took an indirect swipe at universities like Columbia and the University of Southern California that have canceled commencement and other university events.

“I don’t make it my business to comment inside other institutions’ management decisions particularly, but I just don’t know who benefits by canceling these commencements. I don’t know who benefits by allowing people to disrupt the opportunity for students who have an exam tomorrow morning to be able to study in the library,” he said. “I know that we suffer as a community when people are spitting on police. I don’t know who benefits by vandalizing buildings. I just don’t understand the leadership decisions that are made in a lot of other places.”

He took the same approach regarding other universities, like Northwestern, that have sat down to negotiate with the protesters and even reach agreements with them. Sasse has no plans to do the same. “We just don’t think it’s prudent or wise or helpful to negotiate with the people who happen to scream the loudest,” Sasse explained. 

UF has more Jewish students than any other university in America, according to data compiled by Hillel International — 6,500 Jewish undergrads and 2,900 Jewish graduate students. Sasse attended a massive seder at the university last month that drew more than 1,000 people. 

“It is a special community. I think everybody feels safe. But I want the feelings to not be subjective, I want it to be because objectively, they are safe,” Sasse said. “Our Jewish Gators, as they call themselves, feel like it’s a pretty darn special place to be right now.”

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