Leadership & Governance

Florida State U. Board Picks Politician as President Despite Widespread Protest

Phil Sears, AP Images

State Sen. John Thrasher, who was appointed as president of Florida State U. on Tuesday, said he planned to use his political skills to “reach out and try to find common ground” with his faculty and student critics.
September 24, 2014

Florida State University’s Board of Trustees voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to name John E. Thrasher, a powerful longtime state lawmaker, as their institution’s next president, defying faculty members and students who had favored other candidates with more-traditional academic backgrounds and who denounced the selection process as tainted by political favoritism.

Some board members, in voicing support at their meeting for Mr. Thrasher, a Republican state senator who was the board’s chairman 10 years ago, expressed hope that he would be able to use his political skills to mend the campus’s divisions over his selection. One such trustee, Joseph Gruters, predicted that Mr. Thrasher would win over faculty members by securing additional state funds to raise their salaries. That way, he said, "everyone will be happy."

Mr. Thrasher told the Tallahassee Democrat after Tuesday’s meeting that a top priority would be building strong relations with his faculty and student critics. The newspaper quoted him as saying he was more than willing to use his training as a politician to "reach out and try to find common ground."

But Eric Walker, a professor of English and a faculty representative on the presidential-search committee, predicted after the meeting that "there is still going to be turbulence" on the campus as a result of students’ opposition to the new president.

Edward E. Burr, a board member who had led the search committee and who voted with the majority on Tuesday, acknowledged before casting his ballot that Mr. Thrasher, who has never been a college administrator, would "have to surround himself with the right folks" to adjust to managing an academic enterprise.

Joseph L. Camps Jr., another board member who supported Mr. Thrasher, said in announcing his decision that "none of us can predict based on our choice what tomorrow will bring."

Troubled Process

What Tuesday brought was a board meeting that ended, after about two hours of heated public comment, with an 11-to-2 vote in favor of Mr. Thrasher over the three college administrators who were the other finalists. Students angered by the board’s decision immediately burst into chants of "FSU is not for sale!," reflecting a widespread belief among them that conservative business interests had unduly influenced the trustees’ decision.

Jeff Chanton, a professor of oceanography, warned the board before its vote that selecting Mr. Thrasher would be seen as "incredibly dismissive of the faculty."

The appointment of Mr. Thrasher will not be final until it is approved by the state-university system’s Board of Governors, in November. Although that board’s approval is widely expected, Mr. Thrasher said in a statement issued on Tuesday that he planned to continue his campaign for re-election this fall to his Senate seat.

The process in which the board selected Mr. Thrasher had been controversial almost from the beginning. In May, the board’s search committee drew protests from students and faculty members by announcing that Mr. Thrasher was the only candidate it planned to interview at its next meeting. In June, Florida State’s Faculty Senate voted no confidence in the search committee’s consulting firm, William Funk & Associates, which subsequently ceased its involvement with the renewed search process.

The Faculty Senate this month passed a resolution calling on the search committee not to recommend Mr. Thrasher as a candidate and the board not to appoint him as president. The resolution, subsequently endorsed by the executive council of the university’s faculty union, said Mr. Thrasher "lacks the stated qualifications required for the position," which the other finalists possessed. As of Tuesday, nearly 1,500 people had signed a petition, drafted by the union, urging Florida State’s board to scrap the search and start over.

When the candidates for the presidency were questioned at campus forums last week, Mr. Thrasher raised eyebrows by declining to clearly respond when faculty members asked him if he believed in human-caused climate change and in evolution. When students appeared to laugh at his response regarding climate change, he threatened to walk out.

In arguing in support of Mr. Thrasher on Tuesday, Mr. Burr praised the state senator, who previously served as chairman of the State House of Representatives and as chairman of the Florida Republican Party, as distinctly positioned to work with the state-university system and lawmakers to secure Florida State tight state funds to improve its national ranking. "It all starts with resources," Mr. Burr said.

Another trustee, Kathryn Ballard, said that with Mr. Thrasher’s appointment as president, "We are ready to explode with more greatness than ever."

But Margaret A. (Peggy) Rolando, a trustee who joined the board’s faculty representative, Gary Tyson, in voting against Mr. Thrasher, said the board’s decision "could come back to bite us and may be very self-defeating."

Noting that Mr. Thrasher will be prohibited under state law from lobbying for the university until he has been out of legislative office for at least two years, Ms. Rolando said the board was "setting him up to fail" if it expected him to persuade state lawmakers to spend substantially more on public higher education any­time soon. In response to trustees’ hopes that Mr. Thrasher would help improve the university’s national rankings, she said the university would not gain any points on the reputational sections of ranking surveys "by a appointing a nonacademic as our president."

Tough Talk

During the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, many students and faculty members accused the trustees of doing the bidding of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who played a major role in selecting the board members and whose re-election campaign Mr. Thrasher is leading. Several also accused the trustees of being unduly influenced by Charles and David Koch, two billionaire conservative activists who have contributed to both Florida State and Mr. Thrasher’s campaigns.

Alexandra Reed, a senior, called the selection process "very sketchy." Joshua Mills, a graduate student in Florida State’s music school, said people "will have zero respect for this presidency." Kimberly Tate Anderson, a doctoral student in English, said the board should be prepared to be investigated by the news media for malfeasance and "publicly shamed."

The tone of the rhetoric prompted pleas for civility from several board members, including Mr. Tyson, its faculty representative, who is a professor of computer science and president of the university’s Faculty Senate. He lamented "a coarseness in dialogue" that he called "poisonous," and he said, "When I hear an attack on somebody who I know is working very hard for the university, it is very frustrating for me."

Several students and faculty members spoke out in favor of the other three candidates: Richard B. Marchase, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Michael V. Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University System; and Michele G. Wheatly, a former provost of West Virginia University. Ms. Wheatly drew the most praise of the three, but all were described by Mr. Thrasher’s critics as better suited to immediately run a university and to deal with people in academe on a national level.

Among the minority of speakers who spoke in favor of Mr. Thrasher, Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former Florida State president who had suggested him for the job, said they disagree politically but "I know that he cares about students."

Joe Vance, president of the campus’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, said that "our entire chapter supports John Thrasher." Kyle Eastwood, one of that fraternity’s members, said Mr. Thrasher "will do a great job."