TALLAHASSEE — Florida State University trustees today are expected to choose an alumnus and nationally renowned climatologist as the institution's 14th president, a move aimed at boosting FSU's research reputation and fundraising prowess.
Eric Barron, a 1973 FSU graduate who leads the National Center for Atmospheric Research, would replace longtime president T.K. Wetherell, the former state House speaker and lobbyist who announced this summer his plans to retire in early 2010.
Barron, 58, was one of 26 people from around the country to apply for the post — and one of three finalists interviewed last week.
Search committee members initially expressed concern that the pool of applicants was lackluster. Nevertheless, Barron emerged as the frontrunner in interviews with the search committee, students, faculty and other staff. They liked his affable personality and his views on leadership, fundraising and building relationships.
"Dr. Barron kind of blew away all the competition," trustee and search committee member Jim Smith said Monday. Smith confirmed that Barron is the only finalist invited to today's trustees meeting — a clear indication he is the likely pick.
"My sense of what all our constituent groups think is, he's the total package," Smith said. "Looking at him, it just feels like hey, we've got a home run. He is the best candidate to offer up to the board (of trustees)."
Barron served as dean at Penn State and the University of Texas, two large universities that enjoy membership in the prestigious 62-member Association of American Universities, an invitiation-only group that FSU aspires to join. The University of Florida is the only institution in the state with AAU membership.
"You know, you look at the AAU and the breadth of Ph.D. programs those schools have, and this university is there," Barron said. "You have a lot to brag about at FSU . . . and I like to have good things to brag about."
Smith and other trustees want the next president to help launch a billion-dollar capital fundraising campaign, and Barron is eager for the chance.
He told committee members that he and his wife attended just about every home football game at Penn State with potential donors.
"Raising money from individuals is not putting your hands in someone's pockets. It is creating a relationship with someone and helping them create a relationship with this university," Barron said.
He also said a strong athletics program at FSU is key to helping build the university's endowment.
"The breadth of a Florida State athletic program . . . changes the campus environment because of the excitement," he said. "And in my view of fundraising, it is the doorway. It is the thing that brings someone back, and it gives me a chance to tell them about all the other things going on."
Barron appealed to students with his emphasis on establishing strong ties with students. He said he misses students since leaving the University of Texas last year for the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
He told committee members he would like to set up a scholars program for FSU students that encourages student involvement on campus and around it. "Have you been involved in student government? Check. Have you interned with a major corporation? Check. Did you do community service? Check," he said.
Rep. Will Weatherford, an FSU grad who served on the search group, said Barron's focus on students makes him the best choice.
"The thing I liked most is that he talked about making FSU a student-centered university," Weatherford said. "He just has a great personality, and he is an academic, so he understands the importance of research."
Barron and the other finalists — Boston College vice provost Kevin Bedell and University of North Carolina vice provost for research Steve Leath — all come from an academia background. The search committee made clear from the start that they want the next president to have a strong background in research and in fundraising. It's a significant shift from the presidential model seen in many Florida universities and across the country, where politicians and CEOs run universities.
Wetherell was president of Tallahassee Community College before taking the helm at FSU in 2003, but he is best known as a politically savvy former House speaker and lobbyist. Longtime Florida Atlantic University president Frank Brogan, now university system chancellor, previously served as Florida's elected education commissioner and lieutenant governor.
If he takes the FSU presidency, Barron won't be able to avoid politics and the Legislature, which sets universities' budgets and counts many FSU alums among its ranks.
Barron said he has a strategy in mind.
"If the Legislature gives us more, we should do something with it," he said. "And we should spend as much time on the other end bragging about how we used it and the outcome we saw."
If trustees choose Barron as expected, the next step is to negotiate a contract. Wetherell's base salary is now $315,545, plus benefits such as club memberships, a car and an annual bonus of up to $75,000. Taxpayer dollars cover $225,000; the rest comes from private donations.
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.