Republican Ben Sasse has raised the ire of a small group of Midland University alumni and others who believe that his U.S. Senate campaign and his political positions have pushed the church-affiliated school into the political arena.
Eight writers — seven of whom are ministers, four of whom are alumni and seven of whom are either registered as Democrats or call themselves Democrats — believe that Sasse should step down as president of Midland University.
“For Midland, as a church-related institution, to be continually linked to Sasse's candidacy and political positions does not reflect well on his leadership or the university. To many, his candidacy represents a clear conflict of interest,” the eight write in a letter that appears today in The World-Herald's Public Pulse section.
Sasse is one of four major Republican candidates seeking the GOP Senate nomination in the May 13 primary.
He officially retains the title of president of Midland University, although he has taken a partial leave of absence and has received what university officials called a significant reduction in his salary since his campaign kicked into full gear in the fall.
Midland is a private institution associated with the Lutheran faith.
Neal Von Seggern, a 1964 graduate of Midland, was the chief organizer behind the letter.
He and the others who signed the letter are particularly upset with Sasse's opposition to President Barack Obama's health care law. They worry that many people may assume that Sasse speaks on behalf of the university when he condemns the law.
Sasse has made his opposition to the Affordable Care Act a cornerstone of his campaign, saying that if he is elected, he will work for its repeal.
Sasse said he believes that Nebraskans and others readily understand that when he is speaking on the campaign trail, he is not speaking on behalf of Midland University. When he decided to run, Sasse said, he informed his board of trustees, which had the opportunity to ask for his resignation.
Instead, the trustees asked Sasse to stay and worked out a plan in which Sasse is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the university but remains available to help with the university's long-term strategic planning. Sasse was instrumental in Midland's recent acquisition of Dana College, and he continues to help as Midland moves forward on reopening that college.
Gary Perkins, chairman of Midland University's board of directors, said the board did not want to lose Sasse.
“He's clearly been very instrumental in developing the strategy that has moved Midland from the brink of bankruptcy to become one of the fastest-growing small universities in the region,” said Perkins, who is also president of Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. “That's not the type of expertise that you would choose to lose.”
He also said he does not believe that the public is confused. Most people realize that Sasse's political views are his own, said Perkins.
In addition, Perkins said, candidates seldom have to sever their ties to their employers when they run for office.
“I think Ben has been very open and very forthright in explaining his personal views,” Perkins said. “They are his opinions, and they do not reflect the opinion of the university. And he has been very clear on that.”