Ask Midland University’s Ben Sasse if he’s going to run for Nebraska’s open Senate seat next year, and he’s quick to insist that he hasn’t committed to anything. But within hours of Representative Jeff Fortenberry’s May 29 announcement that he would not be pursuing the seat, Sasse had a video up on Facebook announcing he was going to embark on a 45-day listening tour across the state—“from Benkelman to Beatrice”—with his wife and three young children in tow before making a decision. That kind of timing suggests a level of planning and preparation that belies Sasse’s feints at ambivalence.
He may be playing coy about the future, but when asked about his experience during the last three years as president of a small Midwestern liberal arts college 35 miles northwest of Omaha, Sasse says “I love my day job” with convincing enthusiasm. He grew up just a few miles from Midland. His grandfather was the CFO of Midland and worked there for 33 years, and his parents met at the college. He owns cemetery plots in a nearby hilltop graveyard, adjacent to the Lutheran church where his grandfather carved the altarpiece and he and his family attend every Sunday. “We’ve wanted to be in Nebraska and raise our kids in Nebraska,” he says.
Being president of the college in his hometown agrees with Sasse, but his résumé suggests no shortage of ambition. He studied at Harvard, Oxford, and St. John’s, then earned a Ph.D. from Yale. His dissertation won the Theron Rockwell Field and the George Washington Egleston Prizes. The dissertation is a treasure trove of forgotten history relating to the populist backlash surrounding the Supreme Court’s school prayer decisions in the 1960s. More broadly, it’s a sophisticated and brilliant dissection of how a lot of the standard liberal narratives about American political realignment in the last 50 years are woefully incomplete at best and self-serving fictions to attack religious conservatives at worst. Given his academic background, it’s not surprising that Sasse has taught history and politics at Yale and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
But somehow Sasse segued from a strictly academic focus to work in business consulting, at the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey and Company. Sasse soon discovered he had a knack for crisis management and turnaround projects. That, in turn, led him into government. Shortly after 9/11 Sasse ended up as chief of staff for the Office of Legal Policy, a sort of internal think tank at the Department of Justice, where he worked on improving coordination between intelligence agencies. From there, he did a stint as chief of staff for his congressman, the aforementioned Fortenberry. In 2007, he was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by a Democratic Senate as assistant secretary of health and human services, where he worked on strategic initiatives to rein in entitlement spending and modernize health care. Sasse’s health care expertise is considerable, and he has written a number of high profile op-eds criticizing Obamacare.
Looked at in the context of Sasse’s broader résumé, the return home to small-town Nebraska to become president of a college that most people have never heard of may seem like a letdown. In actuality, it might be Sasse’s crowning achievement. When Sasse was appointed president of Midland three years ago, he was just 37 years old—making him one of the youngest college presidents in the country. At the time, Midland was in dire straits and contemplating bankruptcy. Sasse turned out to be a prodigious crisis manager. In the last three years, Midland’s enrollment has gone from 590 students to 1,100. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that in the process of turning Midland around, Sasse reinvented the higher education wheel. Oddly enough, his vision for reforming higher ed grew out of his experience trying to fix America’s dysfunctional health care system.
“The only sector that even compares with higher ed for being broken is health care. Think about how similar they are. They’re both dominated by third-party payment, and that third party is mostly public funders that don’t know how to hold anybody accountable for outcomes. The institutions exist primarily for the good of their own workers, not their own customers—students or patients. Quality is hard to measure, but to the degree you can measure, you have to measure things that are team outcomes, not solo, virtuoso outcomes,” he says.
“We pretend in health care that there’s one rock star doctor who’s changing a patient’s life, when the vast majority of what’s wrong with most patients is that there’s nobody available to coordinate their care across dozens of medical professionals engaged in their life,” he goes on. “The exact same thing is involved in a college enterprise with trying to educate a kid. The rock star, solo, virtuoso lecturer? I love ’em. But the vast majority of what changes a kid’s life is accountability across all of his or her classes, across all four years, where they start to do their own reading, writing, and learn to make an oral presentation, and where there’s more rigor and accountability demanded of them.”
And Sasse is serious about accountability measures. After some careful maneuvering, he’s almost completely eliminated tenure at the school in favor of “term tenure,” which ensures regular and meaningful evaluations of instructors. As for students, he’s imposed a “three strikes” rule involving “high frequency, low-stakes” quizzes used to measure whether or not students are doing the work in each class. “One strike is between you and the professor, two strikes you have to meet with the vice-president for academic affairs, and three strikes you get kicked out of the class,” Sasse says. “It’s harder to graduate on time, costs you money, and it embarrasses you. Our kids are engaging in classes so much more than they did two years ago.”
He also took an unusual but effective approach to creating a culture that encourages students to pursue excellence in the classroom—encouraging them to pursue excellence outside of the classroom.
“Most schools when they get in [financial trouble] cut all their extracurricular budget. We’ve doubled down on it,” Sasse says. He sees high levels of student participation in sports and extracurriculars as a way to avoid cultivating more liberal academic attitudes that would devalue achievement. There was a 20-person choir when Sasse arrived at Midland. Now 250 students are involved in a wide-ranging performing arts program.
“We’re going from 18 to 27 sports,” Sasse continues, “and have added 13 levels of JV competition, because these are the places where lives are changed. You see real success and real failure. It’s not just social promotion and therapy. The average kid who’s playing second-string linebacker on Midland’s football team, you think he’s contributing in the class the same way he is if we didn’t have football? No way. The football coach is the accountability in his life. His teammates and not letting them down are the accountability in his life. If he wasn’t taking remedial math seriously on his own, he’s likely to take it seriously now.”
The school just added a shooting team—Midland’s new coach is Bret Erickson, six-time national trap shooting champion and the 2012 Olympic team coach—and Sasse has announced the formation of men’s and women’s hockey teams in the fall of 2014. The school’s athletic director is Dave Gillespie, a former University of Nebraska running back who spent many years with Nebraska’s hallowed football program.
The end result is that Midland has the best of all worlds. The school has adopted efficiency and accountability measures from business and has something approaching the variety of extracurricular options you would find at Big State U. Yet it retains the kind of close-knit community you would expect at a small liberal arts college. The sticker price on a year of education at Midland is $33,000 including room and board (Midland is expanding its on-campus living requirement from two to three years). That’s positively thrifty by private college standards, but the average Midland student pays only about half of it out of pocket, largely thanks to the school’s generous scholarship program. To support it, Sasse spends much of his time fundraising around the state—experience that, not coincidentally, has positioned him well to raise money for a Senate run.
Asked why he wants to run for the Senate, Sasse has an answer at the ready that makes him sound almost like a politician. “[We need] to tell the truth about entitlements and figure out how you create an opportunity society that has citizens, neighbors, communities, businesses building the future . . . as opposed to the dependency-expansion culture we’re living through in Washington right now,” he says.
“The greatness of America is the greatness of the American people,” he continues, “not the greatness of centralized bureaucracies in Washington, D.C. Why is Washington, D.C., a boomtown when the rest of the country has economic despair? Why are housing prices going up in D.C. when everywhere else in the world they’ve had a horrible five years? The federal government ain’t feeling the pain. They just keep on growing.”
If Sasse’s nonexistent-bordering-on-nascent campaign has a theme, it’s protecting “Nebraska values” from Washington. When it comes to touting his educational accomplishments, Sasse realizes his own criticism of “rock-star virtuosos” might be made of him. To the extent he’s been able to carry out his vision, he insists it’s because the community surrounding Midland dug deep financially and otherwise to support the school.
Considering Sasse’s reputation as a hyperachiever, some might dismiss this as faux humility. But it’s also true that Fremont, Nebraska, feels at times like the backdrop in a Frank Capra movie. The town has roughly five times the number of churches as coffee shops. Students at Midland attend the football game on weekends, and after the game they walk across the street to sit in vinyl booths at the Nifty Fifties diner and order slices of pie out of a rotating display case.
In the meantime, Sasse isn’t just preparing for his “listening tour.” He’s keeping his options open, as demonstrated by the fact he’s attempting to rescue yet another college. Just down the road in Blair, Nebraska, is Dana College, another small Lutheran liberal arts college that shut its doors three years ago, leaving $80 million worth of buildings empty. Sasse led a group of investors that bought it out of bankruptcy for a song. He likes to drive visitors up to the 150 acres overlooking the Missouri River valley in his pickup truck and lay out his plans for the place. If all goes well, Dana College will share the same administrative infrastructure as Midland and reopen its doors in the next few years.
Sasse may also have to contend with a competitive GOP primary: Former Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn has already announced he’s running for the Senate, and there’s talk of other candidates emerging. Still, Sasse remains undaunted. He’s only 41, and he’s already been successful at high levels of business, government, and academia. If Sasse does decide to run for the Senate, at this point in his life he’s got a lot to offer and not much to lose.
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.