About 50 students protested near the iconic Westcott Building on Thursday in one of the clearest demonstrations of student outrage yet over Florida State’s selection of state Sen. John Thrasher for the university presidency.
A potential Thrasher presidency had been a lightning rod for controversy ever since the contentious presidential search process began, drawing the ire of critics who say the search was ultimately a fixed process already predetermined to choose Thrasher.
“We’re here to make a final stand,”Jerry Funt, an FSU student, said to the dozens of students standing with anti-Thrasher placards at the steps of Westcott. He led the demonstrators in dynamic chants of “education is a right” and “student power.”
Funt expressed concern over a Thrasher presidency, citing his ethics violations in the state Senate, his views on campus sexual assault, and how Thrasher “lied to students” at campus forums about the source of his political donations.
During the controversial presidential search, Thrasher told students and faculty in campus forums in September that the Koch brothers – billionaire industrialists known for building an extensive conservative political funding network – had not donated to his Florida Senate campaigns, when in fact, they had.
“We feel that the search was done in a completely corrupt manner, and that it was done in a way that allowed rampant conflict of interests and moved forward a candidate that didn’t have the [academic] credentials and the support of the university community,” Funt said.
The energetic student demonstrators soon made their way inside Westcott to present a succinct list of demands to the Office of the President that included efforts at increased transparency and a promise from Thrasher to “guard academic freedom.” The link between Thrasher and the Kochs – not as clear in recent years –has some students on campus uneasy, who are concerned he could make it easier for the Koch brothers to influence university curriculum through further financial donations.
Recently obtained documents by the Center for Public Integrity reveal that the Kochs sought to influence academic hiring in the economics department through their financial largesse in 2007, demanding a role in hiring libertarian-leaning economics professors with the help of an advisory board that would work with Florida State in order to make sure their donations were meeting “donor intent.” This was a key portion of the agreement, and the billionaire industrialists maintained the right to withdraw their financial backing if the professors hired were not meeting certain “objectives.”
With such agreements, students feared that the academic independence of Florida State could be compromised.
Mary Colburn, Vice President of Student Affairs, met student protesters in the lobby where she announced that Thrasher had agreed to meet with a delegation on his first day in office on the morning of Monday, Nov. 10. She also said she appreciated their “enthusiasm and activism.”
“You’re welcome to come upstairs if you want to, but as you know [John Thrasher] is not here,” she said.
The protesters then attempted to enter the president’s office, only to be turned away by university police chief David Perry, who declared “the office was closed,” and the announcement was met with derision and scorn from the student demonstrators. But Colburn accepted their list on behalf of the president.
Colburn later told The Last Word that “none of the people they wanted to talk to were in there,” noting earlier that the current university president, Garnett Stokes, was at the Board of Governors meeting that was aimed at confirming Thrasher for FSU president. “It’s mostly assistants.” An FSU spokesperson interjected, adding that “extensive remodeling” was being done in the administrative building.
Meanwhile, Thrasher was confirmed as FSU’s next president by a unanimous vote of the Board of Governors, only after a few concerns were raised about the nature of the search process. One board member said it could have been handled better.
University spokespersons chose not to comment on the student protests. But when asked to clarify about the Koch contract that ignited widespread criticism, Dennis Schnittker, director of university communications, pointed to the website that “explains” the contract. According to the website, the contract was further modified in 2013 to “eliminate the advisory group” that would have hired libertarian-leaning economics professors.
But students continue to raise concerns over an inevitable Thrasher tenure as FSU president.
Speaking to WTSP-10 News, Sydney Norris, an FSU student, said she fears for the future of the university.
“I don’t want my degree to mean any less than it did on the day it was handed to me,” Norris said.
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer