FREMONT -- When Dana College in Blair announced it had lost its accreditation and would close, newly seated Midland Lutheran College President Ben Sasse was hardly caught off guard.
Within hours of Dana's declared demise on June 30, Sasse had assembled a team of nine people -- including two bankers and a major Midland donor -- to assess whether and how the private liberal arts college in Fremont could help Dana's stranded students.
Like Dana, Midland is a Lutheran-affiliated college that also was suffering from stunted enrollment.
So Sasse and his group set up a war room. They ordered pizza. They worked the numbers through the night until they had a solid plan to bring in nearly half of Dana College's 600-plus students and some faculty members, as well as add four new athletic programs that will be run by former Dana coaches. Both schools were members of the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
"One of the most important things we wanted to make sure we did, if all these Dana students had an institution shutting down on them ... we wanted to make sure that they had a sense of the commitments that their sister institution was going to make to them," Sasse said.
Described by many close to him as a planner, Sasse had been crafting a proposal since March - the month he became Midland's president and Dana announced plans to sell to a for-profit group - that took into account the possibility of the sale falling through.
Today, Sasse finds himself heading a 125-year-old institution set to take in most of Dana's students, which will increase Midland's enrollment by more than 50 percent.
Sasse said he has other news-making plans on the horizon that he expects to announce in the coming weeks.
While he acknowledges the boon to Midland, he insists neither he nor other Midland leaders saw Dana's demise with an opportunistic eye.
"Our overwhelming first instinct on this was just sadness for our friends," Sasse said. "These are good folks over there. We like people on the board and senior administration. They were trying to do the best they could for their students."
At 38, Sasse hardly fits the stereotype of a college president. It's more likely the youthful-looking man who still likes to relive his days as a high school wrestler by occasionally grappling with athletes half his age would be confused for a student.
That is, until he speaks.
An expert on public policy and business who served as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, Sasse also has a strong background in politics and history, and has a penchant for theology. He attended Harvard, Oxford University and St. John's before getting his Ph.D. in American political history, strategy and management from Yale. His dissertation on domestic politics during the Cold War won Yale's university-wide Theron Rockwell Field prize for best dissertation and the George Washington Egleston Historical Prize. His writing regularly appears in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily.
While his collegiate career took him from Nebraska, Sasse has a long history with Midland. As a child, he spent plenty of time on the Fremont campus, where his grandfather was chief financial officer for 33 years before retiring in 1983. Sasse's father is a graduate of Midland, and Sasse grew up in Fremont, attending Fremont High School and working summers in nearby cornfields.
"For me, a huge part of what it means to be a Nebraskan when you're out of Nebraska is the work experiences of working in the fields: walking beans and detasseling corn," he said. "It's almost artificially quaint, but the truth of the matter is, I've never done anything as hard as detasseling corn."
Sasse's professional life has included working as a Boston-based business consultant, with the federal Justice Department and as chief of staff for Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-1st District. He also served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services and taught public policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
Throughout all the moves between Washington, D.C., and Austin, public service and academia, Sasse remained loyal to Nebraska, said his wife, Melissa.
"He couldn't imagine raising his kids anywhere else," she said.
He even talked her into buying a summer home on a small lake outside of Fremont, where the family bunked during the University of Texas' summer breaks, she said.
Even so, Ben Sasse said his decision to take the job at Midland in late 2009 was not a sure thing.
"When the folks at Midland first started calling last fall, I guess I wouldn't say I jumped right away. I had to warm up to it," he said. "I had a pretty nice life of an academic base and yet the freedom to jump in and out of business strategy problems without having to own any organization any day, every day.
"But the chance to go home, because it was here, because it was Nebraska, because it was Midland -- a place that my family is so closely connected to -- we warmed up pretty quickly."