Seeking the presidency at Florida State amid a storm of controversy, state Sen. John Thrasher was on campus today for a series of open forums with students and faculty that were often strained and, at times, outright combative.
Pressed on a variety of issues ranging from evolution to climate change and his own legislative past, Thrasher answered a multitude of questions from critics and supporters alike, continuously referencing the need for “more resources” for students and “higher salaries” for faculty. However, he was short on specifics but repeatedly offered to work as “a tireless advocate for Florida State University,” specifically as a source of university fundraising.
Last week, the Faculty Senate adopted a resolution officially recommending the presidential search committee to not recommend Thrasher for the job, its most high profile show of opposition to his candidacy to date, due to his lack of academic credentials. Of the four finalists for the FSU presidency, he is the only one who has never led a university. It set the stage for a tense confrontation between a skeptical faculty and a determined Thrasher.
A series of testy exchanges arose over his personal views on controversial topics, and at times the questions asked were more reminiscent of a political town hall meeting rather than a university presidential search forum. He often avoided questions regarding his political beliefs.
Andy Opel, an FSU professor from the College of Communications, asked “whether he accepted the science behind climate change,” but Thrasher declined to give a specific answer.
“I probably have to ask you and other experts who know a great deal more about it than I do,” replied Thrasher.
When pressed by Opel for a clearer statement, an angered Thrasher fired back, saying, “Well should I? Would you make a clearer statement about it if you didn’t know all the information?”
As Thrasher gave his answer on the subject, a group of graduate students began to laugh, which immediately drew a sharp reaction from a rattled Thrasher.
He threatened to leave, saying, “I will not be heckled.”
Thrasher was also asked about a 1995 letter that he signed with other state legislators that condemned as “anti-family” a Walt Disney Co. policy that extended health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.
Thrasher then said that he would follow Florida State’s policy on domestic partners since the Board of Trustees, his potential bosses, had set “a good policy” on the issue and would work to “ensure that they are adequately taken care of.”
Additionally, in the faculty forum, the influential Republican state senator also emphasized the need of higher salaries for FSU’s faculty in a wide variety of questions posed to him, saying it was a key issue to address in the university’s goal to reach the top 25 of nationally ranked institutions.
The divisive nature of Thrasher’s candidacy was also evident in the student forum, with some students opposed to Thrasher and others there to voice support for his candidacy.
Greek organizations had voiced their support for Thrasher, led by the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity (Pike).
A Pike fraternity member asked Thrasher about his fundraising abilities and whether he would succeed in the $1 billion capital campaign that FSU’s former president, Eric Barron, had set in place in when he assumed the presidency in 2010.
“We’re halfway there,” he said. “We’re damn sure going to reach that billion dollars, I promise you that.”
However, when asked by The Last Word why he personally supported Thrasher, the same Pike fraternity member said, “I don’t really know anything.”
Other students were opposed to his candidacy, with some holding anti-Thrasher signs.
The broad variety of questions asked by students dealt with issues such as sexual assault and whether he would truly leave his political life behind if he became the next president of FSU.
On sexual assault, Thrasher said, “We’re going to have a clearer understanding of how cases are investigated and of what needs to be done. There will be zero tolerance for sexual assaults on this campus.”
Thrasher also promised those who are wary of his conservative past that he would leave it all behind and immediately resign all of his political positions if he became FSU’s next president.
Thrasher remains the most controversial candidate of the four finalists. On campus forums will also be held this week for the other three finalists.
Former West Virginia University provost Michele Wheatly will be on campus on Tuesday, Colorado State University System chancellor Michael Martin will interview on Wednesday, and Richard Marchase, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, will answer questions from students and faculty on Friday.
The presidential search committee will meet on Sept. 22 to select at least three finalists to send to the Board of Trustees. The Board will conduct a final round of interviews before selecting the next president on Sept. 23.
The choice before the Board is perhaps best summarized in a tweet posted by a reporter from Tampa Bay Times, Tia Mitchell.
“Public universities are liberal places. Thrasher is a conservative. Part of what [the] FSU trustees must decide is whether both can coexist,” said Mitchell.
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / contributing writer