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.