With “an audacious vision” for the future, Ben Sasse is inaugurated as the 13th president of the University of Florida

“Today is not about me; it’s far more interesting than that. Today is about the University of Florida’s last decade and next decade. It’s about Gator Nation’s unbelievable accomplishments of late and where we’re headed next.” 

With this poignant statement, Ben Sasse was officially inaugurated on Thursday as the 13th president of the University of Florida. 

The elements of his inaugural address — as well as the entire investiture celebration at 3 p.m. in the historic University Auditorium — included themes of service, academic excellence, and higher education’s role in the digital revolution. 

Hundreds of members of the UF community and the public, dressed in blue and orange attire, attended the ceremony and the reception afterward on the Auditorium lawn. Florida education officials, university presidents and representatives, and governing officials watched as Sasse succeeded Kent Fuchs, who had served as president of UF since 2015.

“As I have said many times, Dr. Ben Sasse is uniquely and distinctly qualified to lead our amazing university to the next level,” said UF Board of Trustees Chair Mori Hosseini. “Is it any wonder why he was the unanimous choice of the presidential search committee? I can answer that without any hesitation whatsoever: Ben Sasse is exactly the right person for the job.”

A Warm Gator Welcome

The inauguration ceremony began with a prelude and processional, as the UF Concert Choir (under the direction of Will Kesling) performed Howard Hanson’s iconic “Song of Democracy.” 

J. Scott Angle, UF’s interim provost and senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, provided the welcome and acknowledgements. He began by recognizing UF President Emeritus Charles E. Young, who dedicated his life to public higher education and passed away last month at the age of 91. Angle then reflected on the past and the future.

“We celebrate this occasion as a milestone for a land-grant institution that traces its origin back 170 years,” Angle said, standing beneath the hammerbeam ceilings of the century-old Collegiate Gothic building. “The dawn of a new era for our university coincides with a new era for our society. The man to guide us at the dawn of this new era is Benjamin Eric Sasse.”

The UF ROTC Color Guard then presented the colors, and Anthony Offerle (a baritone in the Faculty Brass Quintet) sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Gerard Duncan, the senior pastor at Prayers By Faith Family Ministries, gave the invocation.

“As we come here today from near and far, representing all societal spheres, may we rejoice and celebrate in the historic and momentous occasion of investiture of your chosen servant leader, Dr. Ben Sasse,” Duncan said. “We pray that the strength of this university of students, faculty, and staff becomes the greater essence to be led by his leadership, and that the footprints become the footsteps of service demonstrated locally, statewide, nationally, and abroad.”

Ray Rodrigues, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, spoke on behalf of the Florida public universities.

“As I stand here today, I tell you: disruption is coming to the sector of higher education. I predict that President Sasse’s private-sector experience will prove to be a blessing to the University of Florida in meeting this challenge,” Rodrigues said. “I congratulate Dr. Sasse on his inauguration, and I wish him the best as he works to achieve his vision for the University of Florida and its students.” 

Hosseini, who led the UF Board of Trustees last November to select Sasse from a pool of 700 presidential candidates, spoke on behalf of the trustees.

“Here at the University of Florida, we do not make small plans. As I have said before, history is written by the audacious. That is why, when we needed to select a new president, I told our board that we are going to look outside the box,” Hosseini said. “Our board was looking for a leader with vision, a leader with intellect, an academic with passion for the power and purpose of education – a leader who was not afraid to innovate, to take risks, and to make bold decisions.”

Hosseini added: “We change lives. We educate the next generation of leaders, innovators, and explorers. We make this state and nation a better place. Florida is well-positioned to lead. That’s why we chose President Sasse. We are ready to write this university’s next chapter.”

Speaking on behalf of the UF community was Thomasenia Lott Adams, a UF alumna who currently serves professor of mathematics education and the associate dean of research and faculty development.

“We welcome your leadership in helping us to invite one more…10 more…8,000 more…a million more…until the Gator Nation blankets the world,” Adams said to Sasse about growing the community at UF. “President Sasse, welcome to our home, your home, the University of Florida.”

UF’s Mundo Flamenco Ensemble then performed Tonino Baliardo’s “Tampa” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” just before Sasse’s introduction by Jason Kelly, the co-founder/CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks (the world’s largest designer of synthetic DNA).

“I’m so excited to see what Ben will bring to the role of president at the University of Florida… Every time I’ve talked to him, he is focused on doing something audacious,” Kelly said, commenting on Sasse’s intellectual curiosity and highlighting the role universities have played throughout history in championing new technologies. “The University of Florida is well-positioned to play such a leadership role today, just as emerging technologies (such as synthetic biology) are becoming more important than ever to the United States. If the U.S. is to have a century as great as the last one, we must remember how public-sector universities and the United States government delivered on audacious dreams. I couldn’t think of a better person than Dr. Sasse to help us remember that history (he is a historian, after all), and to lead the University of Florida in shaping the future for our country.” 

Before Sasse’s inaugural address, Hosseini, Fuchs, and UF President Emeritus Bernie Machen presented the symbols of office to the incoming president. Just as Sasse began to don the regalia, he revealed that he was wearing a “Beat Arkansas Razorbacks” T-shirt underneath his robe (a reference to the upcoming football game between UF and the University of Arkansas). Seeing this, Hosseini, who had brought humor and levity to the entire ceremony, led the audience in a “Go Gators” chant.

Sasse then prepared to take the podium.

“Glorious Serendipity”

“Today is a celebration. It’s a renewal ceremony about our great and noble calling as a university together,” Sasse said. 

Sasse’s speech was a heartfelt and lighthearted one, encompassing family anecdotes, wisdom from his UF presidential predecessors, and insights about higher education keeping pace in an increasingly high-tech world. He also discussed his professional shift from politics to the presidency at UF — an institution he described as “not just a place but a cause that I needed to join.” 

“I feel, at seven-and-a-half months, like I’m just beginning to open up a Christmas morning package about all that’s interesting,” Sasse said about his time at UF. “I had only spent a single evening of my life in Gainesville until 13 months ago, when I was invited to come down and candidate for this position. And so, so much of this still feels like glorious serendipity.”

Twice elected to the United States Senate and a two-time New York Times national best-selling author, Sasse’s career has spanned the private and public sectors. He has taught at Yale University, the University of Texas, and Midland University in his Nebraska hometown. 

He has won teaching awards and holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale, where his dissertation won both the Egleston and Theron Rockwell Field best dissertation prizes. Sasse and his wife, Melissa, have two college-age daughters and a 12-year-old son.

Since Sasse joined UF in February, he has brought his solid values and ethics to the presidential role. He has constructed a comprehensive strategic planning initiative, and he has begun guiding UF through an era of rapid change in the nature of work, technology, and higher education.

Sasse has established goals that are critical to UF and the state: putting more emphasis on applied research, championing more of a focus on lifelong learning, and encouraging more nimble engagement with partners. He believes that Florida is the most dynamic state in the nation, with its diverse economy, fast-growing population, and vast outside investment. And he sees UF as uniquely positioned to maximize the state’s potential as an educational and economic powerhouse.

“In a nutshell, here’s the vision: I believe, somewhat like Jason Kelly was saying, that the digital revolution is going to upend higher education in the next decade. I believe that most of higher education doesn’t understand the pace of what’s coming,” Sasse said, expanding on the forthcoming era of “robots building robots” and the emergence of super tools. “And, to our specific purposes today, I truly believe that there is no single institution in the nation better positioned to simultaneously question the old with humility and embrace the new with an entrepreneurial zest about partnering (more and faster) than the University of Florida.”

Sasse views the current moment as an opportunity to embrace change and innovate.

“We are blessed to live at one of the most interesting moments in all of human history, on the cusp of lots and lots of fields and domains of life being made new,” Sasse said. “And so, this should be an extraordinarily fascinating moment to be in the teaching-and-learning business, to be in higher education. This shouldn’t be daunting. This should be exciting.”

He added: “Not just Florida, but the world, needs the University of Florida’s biggest brains to be tackling our biggest challenges and riddles. It is indeed an audacious vision, and thus, it takes a partnership of the resolved and the committed.”

After Sasse’s address, Kevin Thorpe, the pastor from Faith Missionary Baptist Church, led a benediction.

“This day we pray thy blessings upon this union of this president and this university,” Thorpe said. “We ask that you ever provide wisdom, knowledge, understanding, steadfastness, and courage to Benjamin Eric Sasse.” 

Offerle then sang “Alma Mater” by Milton Yeats, which culminated in the lines:

“Neath the orange and blue victorious,
Our love shall never fail.
There’s no other name so glorious.
All hail Florida hail.”

And UF music students Gavan McVey and Michael Dixon performed an organ recessional and a Carillon tribute.

Sasse’s inauguration marked the ninth such moment since UF opened its doors in Gainesville in 1906. The tradition dates back to UF’s fourth president, J. Hillis Miller, whose ceremony was held on March 5, 1948, at Florida Field (during a time of rapid expansion for UF, as veterans returning from World War II signed up to be Gators on the G.I. Bill).

The full week leading up to inauguration at UF is often filled with community-building opportunities. This week, service has been a significant theme, inspired by the ongoing philanthropy of the Sasse family. Members of the UF community participated in “service-to-neighbor” activities throughout Gainesville, the state, the nation, and the world. 

Numerous areas on campus, including the David and Wanda Brown Center for Leadership & Service and Gators Volunteer, teamed up to stock food pantries, organize health fairs, and assist the teams at homeless shelters. The campaign extended its reach to other regions through UF’s global network of 78 Gator Clubs and seven affiliate groups, as well as UF units and programs across the state. This was all part of Sasse’s vision for bringing Gator Nation together, through service, for the greater good.

“Archimedes, the ancient mathematician, famously said that, with the right lever, with the right fulcrum, he could move the world,” Sasse said. “Well, the 22 million citizens of this gorgeous state have, in this institution, the right lever, the right tool, so that we, together, the University of Florida, can move the world.”

For more information on the inauguration, visit inauguration.ufl.edu.

Abby Weingarten November 3, 2023