The Magazine

A Virtuoso Pol from Nebraska?

Ben Sasse eyes the open Senate seat.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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“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. 

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