Higher education has to catch up with pace of new technology, says Ben Sasse in University of Florida inaugural speech

When former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse was inaugurated president of the University of Florida Thursday, he promised to “transform the student experience to deliver even more value” to students and the…

When former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse was inaugurated president of the University of Florida Thursday, he promised to “transform the student experience to deliver even more value” to students and the state, which has reprioritized academics under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In his address, Dr. Sasse called on the institution to “strive toward… more radical practicality,”  be “more excellent in research,” and use “Florida’s biggest brains to be tackling [the world’s] biggest challenges and riddles.”

Sasse, who becomes the 13th UF president, said that digital revolution now underway across the world is already upending education, and institutions must effectively embrace it.

He said too much of the higher education establishment is acting complacent and resisting the changes that the digital revolution have already spawned.    

“The digital revolution through which we’re living combines the migration in computing, from mainframes to desktops, to laptops, to mobile handhelds, now to a merchant wearables and soon to implantables that combines that mobility with the collapse of the cost of marginal computing eventually toward free, or at least toward a cost and price so close to zero, that it won’t be worth us bothering to measure,” said Sasse. “This is free math for everything in life.”  

Sasse compared the phenomena to the 600-year-old revolution that followed the perfection of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455, which the new UF president called “the democratization of information.”  

Gutenberg’s modern printing techniques created “whole new arts, whole new sciences, whole new economies, and whole new republics,” said Sasse.   

Gutenberg’s type made the modern university system possible, making information more widely available, in the same way the digital revolution is making information more widely distributed.  

Yet, much of higher education is resisting change, reducing knowledge to the “lowest common denominator core,” by shutting down the exchange of free thoughts and ideas, according to Sasse.       

When Sasse first assumed the duties of president of the 170-year old UF system in February, 2023, he noted in a letter to alumni, staff, students and professors that higher education was evolving more slowly than the technology that was driving the global economy 

“More data (not to say knowledge or wisdom) has been produced in the last few years than in all of human history prior,” Sasse wrote in the letter. “This pace will only quicken in the coming decade, as society is remade with digital backbones, and as most economic activity across the globe will center for the first time on bits rather than atoms.”  

It was a theme not lost on current university administrators who introduced Sasse prior to the new president’s inaugural address.  

UF Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said Sasse’s assumption of the presidency of the 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,” said Rodrigues. “Ben fosters an approach to progress with a human purpose at its core. He is a historian leading us past the false dichotomy of the sciences as a path to pay and prosperity versus the humanities for the soul and for the citizen.”  

The head of the UF Board of Trustees said that higher education was facing a crisis moment, with people asking if universities even provide value to modern societies.  

“Higher education faces a moment of change,” said UF Board of Trustees Chair, Mori Hosseini, during his introduction of Sasse. “Too many universities have lost the confidence of employers, parents and policymakers. Many ask If college is worth it. Too many universities don’t have a clear and compelling answer. The University of Florida has an answer. Yes, it’s worth it. We change lives.” 

Hosseini followed up by saying that Sasse was the “unanimous” choice by the UF Board of Trustees as the new president, because “As I stand here today, disruption is coming to the sector of higher education.” 

Sasse promised to make the practical majors “even more practical,” to have the university focus more on “big questions and big, enduring ideas,” and to “reject zealotry that preaches de facto intolerance.” 

“We reject determinism that reduces humans to mere objects,” Sasse promised. “We will engage a wide range of opinions, we will challenge assumptions and refine arguments. We believe that free inquiry, viewpoint diversity and good faith disagreement are indispensable to world class research, and world class education.”