A controversial search process that has drawn much faculty and student outcry ended Tuesday when the Florida State University Board of Trustees named Republican state Sen. John Thrasher as FSU’s next president.
In a news release, Thrasher said, “I am honored to have been selected by the Board of Trustees to serve as Florida State University’s next president. I look forward to leading the university to even higher levels of excellence. My goal is to advance the faculty and the research, service, and teaching mission of this university.”
The state Board of Governors must still approve FSU’s decision, although this is mostly a formality. In his first action since being named FSU president, he officially resigned his position as chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s reelection campaign, but will continue his state senate campaign as the Board of Governors will not meet until Nov. 6, two days after election day.
Supporters say that Thrasher is the candidate best fit to lead FSU into the top 25 of nationally ranked public institutions and help it reach its $1 billion fundraising goal. However, Thrasher’s candidacy drew the most vehement student and faculty opposition throughout the search process, with many saying that he lacked the academic credentials necessary to lead FSU into the top 25.
There were also student concerns about his ties to the Koch brothers. Thrasher has accepted campaign donations from the powerful billionaires in the past and some students have grown alarmed that he might advance their sway in the university, given recent revelations that have shown that the Kochs’ sought to have a say in the academic hiring of the FSU economics department to fit their libertarian, unregulated free market ideals in return for more donations to the university.
The tension was palpable throughout the Trustee meeting, with many faculty and student speakers imploring the Board to select any of three academics for president, although Michele Wheatley, a former provost at West Virginia University and one of the four finalists for the presidency, quickly emerged as a student and faculty favorite.
“We deserve a president who plays on the national stage, one with experience, one who won’t be learning the basics of higher education on the job,” said Michael Buchler, a professor at the College of Music and a faculty senator, during the public comment period. “FSU has never hired a president who didn’t have experience in the classroom.” Buchler went on to express support for Wheatley’s candidacy.
Jerry Funt, an FSU student and co-President of the FSU Progress Coalition commenting on the search process said, “Students, faculty and the university community shouldn’t be ignored.”
In opening remarks on the search, former head of the presidential search committee and trustee Ed Burr vigorously defended the search committee, saying it was open and transparent throughout the search process. He also lauded the quality of the four candidates before the Board, which included a former provost, a university chancellor, and a university vice president of research and economic development.
The Board, however, quickly began to settle on Thrasher, citing his fundraising abilities and knowledge of Florida’s political environment that none of the three other academic candidates had.
“All three academic candidates had great ideas and great concepts, but they all harken back to resources,” said Burr. “There wasn’t a single idea that couldn’t be executed without the proper resources and we’re in a resource-challenged environment. If there’s one attribute to John Thrasher, it’s fundraising.”
Trustee Joe Gruters agreed, saying that selecting Thrasher to be the next FSU president would lead to the increase in funding necessary to reach the top 25 of public institutions.
Trustee Peggy Rolando, a Miami real estate lawyer, was the only Board member to express doubts on Thrasher, saying “He will be sidelined for two years on conflict of interest issues,” referring to current Florida law, which maintains that outgoing state legislators are banned from lobbying their respective legislative body for a mandatory period of two years. As FSU president, Thrasher could face ethical and legal issues if he attempted to garner increased funding from the Florida Senate.
Rolando went on, expressing skepticism that Thrasher would be able to use his connections in the Legislature to attract new resources for the university in a time of increased competition among universities for state funding.
In an 11-2 vote, the Board of Trustees selected Thrasher, with Gary Tyson, the faculty’s representative on the Board, and Rolando casting the only dissenting votes.
Student protesters quickly erupted in protest, chanting, “FSU is not for sale.” Board members left soon after.
Many of the Board members had supported Thrasher politically over the years. Trustee Ed Burr individually donated $1,000 to Thrasher’s 2010 Florida Senate campaign and as CEO of Greenpointe Holdings LLC, donated another $1,000 to Thrasher’s 2010 campaign, according to campaign finance reports acquired through the National Institute of Money in State Politics.
Trustee Allan Bense, who is chair of the FSU Board of Trustees, also sits on the Board of Directors for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber supported Thrasher with $2,500 in donations in his 2012 Florida Senate race, according to campaign finance reports. Although the Chamber of Commerce has not donated to Thrasher in his current campaign, the influential St. Augustine Republican is one of five state senators with its highly sought after endorsement.
In comments to the Tallahassee Democrat after he was chosen, Thrasher said, “I’m ready to go. In the meantime I’m going to begin to prepare, to reach out to some folks who want to visit. I want to have discussions about moving forward.”
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer