Academic freedom and Koch funding.
Those were the two main concerns raised by about two dozen student activists from the Florida State chapter of Progress Coalition, who met with new university president John Thrasher in a bare theatre rehearsal hall at Westcott during his first morning holding the executive office. They were also his first official meeting.
And almost immediately, any chance for a compromise between both sides evaporated, as the students pressed for definitive answers from an evasive Thrasher, who repeatedly said that he needed time to look into their demands and conduct research of his own when confronted with them, which were read one by one.
The student activists had prepared a list of nine demands, including an acknowledgement from the former state senator that he “lied to students” about his campaign funding from the Koch brothers, a demand for increased transparency in contracts between FSU and the Florida State Foundation – a university support organization which holds nearly $500 million in assets but is exempt from Florida open records laws – and a demand to end the well-known Koch contract which is currently helping to fund the FSU economics department.
Thrasher faced a barrage of questions from the well-prepared students which led to some spirited back-and-forth between both sides, ranging from his legislative past and his commitment to academic freedom, which at one point he declined to define, saying, “I’m ready for the next question.”
Only when prodded towards the end by Lakey Love, a prominent FSU Progress Coalition activist, did Thrasher offer an answer.
“Academic freedom is the ability of our professors and our students to have a free and open dialogue in a university… that’s why we’re here today, to have a free and open dialogue.”
They also lambasted the university president, saying that his “refusal to take the job seriously” was “insulting” and “disappointing.”
At one point, Thrasher also asked for mutual respect from the students and faculty gathered in the rehearsal hall, saying that he respects their views, but that “I hope you’ll respect mine.”
The students also collectively declared that they would not recognize Thrasher as the FSU president “until you have signed and agreed to meet our demands.”
As the tempestuous meeting characterized by conflict and disagreement came to a strained end, the ill-feeling and friction between both sides was evident as Thrasher was rather non-committal in setting up another meeting with the student activists. They had demanded another forum within a week.
“In terms of the schedule, I’ll ask what the schedule is,” he said, promising to have Mary Colburn, Vice President of Student Affairs, to set up a future meeting with the student activists. She declined to comment on the nature of the first meeting.
Jerry Funt, Co-president of FSU’s Progress Coalition, said he was disappointed with Thrasher’s answers, saying he lacked basic preparation.
“I was really disappointed to find out how little Thrasher had prepared for the meeting. He knew it was important and that it mattered, he should have treated it as the huge issue that it is,” he lamented.
As the meeting concluded, Ralph Wilson, an FSU graduate student and one of the leaders of Progress Coalition told Sunshine State News that they are not done.
“We’re going to keep pushing the administration to protect the university from violations of academic freedom,” said Wilson, “It’s a story older than time. We have to harness the power that students have, and thanks to people like John Thrasher and politicians, it’s a decreasing amount of power that students have.”
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer