Thrasher advances to final step in FSU presidential search



Powerful state Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who serves as chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, and three other candidates with more-traditional academic backgrounds will be interviewed Tuesday before a vote is taken on the next president of Florida State University.

On Monday, the school’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee decided, in a 19-6 vote, to forward all four names to the university’s Board of Trustees, rather than remove any of the finalists from the list.

The action came despite opposition to Thrasher from faculty and students expressing concern about the school’s reputation and the need for the next leader to have stellar academic credentials.

In addition to Thrasher, the finalists are Michele G. Wheatly, who until June had been provost at West Virginia University; Colorado State University System Chancellor Michael V. Martin; and Richard B. Marchase, University of Alabama at Birmingham vice president for research and economic development. Trustees will start interviewing the candidates at 8 a.m. Tuesday and are expected to make a choice in the afternoon.

When the search process began this spring, trustees expressed a desire for the next president to be similar to former President Eric Barron, an academic with a track record in fundraising. Barron earlier this year accepted the position of president at Penn State University.

After the committee voted Monday, trustee Ed Burr, the chairman of the search committee, said he’s yet to make up his mind among the four and dismissed charges that the process is fixed in favor of Thrasher.

“I think the board of trustees will discharge their duty with the same quality that this committee discharged their duties,” Burr said. “It’s a diverse board of trustees. You know they all have the best interest of FSU at heart, and I think they’ll make their evaluation based upon a collection of feedback and data they’ve gotten, which includes the results of the work we’ve done and the result of the interviews they’ll have tomorrow.”

Faculty and students continue to think otherwise.

Jennifer Proffitt, president of the FSU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, called the committee’s actions in regard to Thrasher a “travesty.”

“I think the majority of faculty and students who spoke today have been here consistently and have been saying the same thing about the importance of qualifications,” Proffitt said. “It’s clear (Thrasher) does not have the qualifications to lead a research university.”

Thrasher, a former House speaker and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has been a major supporter of FSU in the Legislature, including helping the university establish a medical school.

He received his undergraduate and law degrees at the school and would later serve four years as chairman of the trustees. Thrasher also headed the search committee that selected T.K. Wetherell as president in 2003, and was nominated for the post this year by former FSU president Talbot ‘Sandy’ D’Alemberte.

Thrasher’s desire for the job caused initial search consultant Bill Funk in May to call for pausing the process so that the committee could interview just Thrasher.

That only created an outcry from faculty and students, resulting in Funk’s resignation and a reopening of the application process a month later.

Current search consultant Alberto Pimentel said Monday that Thrasher received 694 responses after the finalists appeared before students and faculty members last week, the most responses for any finalist.

Of those responses, 11 percent gave Thrasher “good” grades, while 87 percent gave him “not good” or “below average” marks.

Pimentel said that among the negatives expressed about Thrasher were concerns about transferring his fundraising skills from the political to academic arena, whether he can improve the school’s academic rankings nationally, and that he appears to have limited knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math fields.

By comparison, 230 people filled out surveys for Wheatly, 108 for Martin and 107 for Marchase.

Wheatly had the best scores, receiving 91 percent “outstanding” marks with just 3 percent recorded as “below average.” She scored highest on knowledge of STEM fields and for having a firm understanding of other majors. Wheatly received negative comments on her knowledge of athletics.

Physics professor Todd Adams, a member of the search committee, argued against Thrasher based on the survey results and months of public comments.

“The campus has spoken loudly. If we move him forward, we’re ignoring that,” Adams said.

Several faculty and students also argued Monday that the committee’s recommendations demonstrate a lack of caring about the views of those on campus or about the image of the school that has taken recent hits for off-field actions of star football quarterback Jameis Winston.

“FSU cannot afford another headline portraying us as coloring outside the lines,” said Irene Padavic, a professor of sociology. “Our Title IX investigation for sexual assault, the behavior of our quarterback, the inauspicious beginning of our search that led to Mr. Funk’s resignation, each has been a major national news story. Each has brought shame upon our institution.”

While Thrasher has had on-campus detractors, a number of students spoke on Thrasher’s behalf Monday, and a half-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat entitled “FSU Needs John Thrasher as its Next President” demonstrated his political clout.

“Time and again Senator John Thrasher has proven his ability to manage the agenda of diverse and complex institutions, and his expertise and proven track record, coupled with an unwavering loyalty to his alma mater, make John Thrasher the standout candidate to become FSU’s next president,” the ad said.

Among the names on the ad were D’Alemberte and Wetherell, former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, former Secretary of State Jim Smith, and Donald Tucker, a former state House speaker credited with getting funding for the civic center where FSU basketball teams play.

Those political ties were not lost on people advocating against the senator.

“To vote against John Thrasher is to vote against a political friend,” Joshua Mills, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Music, told the committee Monday. “I feel your awkwardness.”

Friday afternoon the Faculty Senate unanimously recommended the search committee forward the names of Marchase, Martin and Wheatly to the trustees.

“Each of these candidates has long, distinguished, and varied national experience in academia, each has a track record of fundraising from both public and private sources, and each expressed a clear vision for how to advance FSU,” the faculty group said in its recommendation.