TALLAHASSEE — More than six years after taking the helm of his alma mater, Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell is reportedly ready to step down — leaving behind a campus whose academic reputation blossomed even as its budget shrank.
Wetherell, 63, declined to confirm his plans Monday. But friends and university officials say he is expected to officially announce at Wednesday's FSU trustees meeting that he wants to leave the post he took in January 2003.
Wetherell's contract runs through 2011, though it is not clear how long he will stay. Former FSU trustee John Thrasher, a longtime friend, said he expects that Wetherell will remain through the end of this year to give a search firm time to find a new president.
He currently receives a base salary of $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.)
"I am delighted he gave FSU nearly seven years of his life," said Thrasher, who, like Wetherell, served as state House speaker. "It's a tiring job, though. It grinds you out."
Friends say his departure is not health-related.
Wetherell was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 2003, just a month after he took over as president of FSU.
He underwent radiation and drug treatment, and in February 2007 he told the Tallahassee Democrat that the cancer was gone.
Wetherell's departure comes at a particularly challenging time for FSU. Like the 10 other state universities in Florida, FSU has seen its state funding shrink in recent years as the economy went south. Since July 2007, FSU's annual state funding dropped by $82 million, said longtime provost Larry Abele.
Trustees on Wednesday are expected to approve a three-year plan that will shave $56 million from FSU's budget by merging and restructuring academic programs and laying off as many as 200 faculty and staff members.
Meanwhile, the university is embroiled in a battle with the NCAA over sanctions handed down earlier this year after an academic cheating scandal involving athletes in multiple sports.
University system leaders say it will be difficult to replace Wetherell, who coupled his political savvy with love for FSU to reap great benefits for the state's third-largest research institution of nearly 40,000 students. Under his watch, FSU has seen its medical school expand and gain full accreditation. The law school grew stronger, with bar exam passage rates among the highest in the state. Wetherell also established an office to promote undergraduate research, and he expanded an academic mentoring program that has gained national attention for its success in graduating minority students who are the first in their families to attend college.
Through a program dubbed "Pathways of Excellence," Wetherell is hiring top professors to do cutting-edge research and create more doctoral programs. The goal is to get FSU into the prestigious Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of 62 top schools. The only Florida school in the group is the University of Florida.
"His footprint will be on FSU forever," said Board of Governors member Carolyn Roberts. "T.K. has left the university stronger than when he found it, and that is remarkable given the economic situation he faced."
Wetherell earned three degrees from FSU, where he starred as a wide receiver and defensive back in the 1960s. He worked as an administrator at Daytona Beach Community College, then was named president of Tallahassee Community College in 1995.
But when Wetherell took over as FSU's 13th president, he was known first and foremost as one of Florida's smoothest politicians.
A conservative Democrat who prefers weekends on his rural family estate over city living, he was a state representative from Daytona Beach for 12 years before becoming House speaker in 1990.
In 2001 Wetherell joined Southern Strategy Group, the powerful lobbying firm headed by Thrasher.
Supporters said Wetherell's political connections made him the ideal person to lead one of Florida's largest and oldest public universities.
But critics worried that his lack of experience with a major research institution would hinder FSU as it tried to boost its academic profile.
Over time, Wetherell won over many naysayers.
The campus also looks better since Wetherell arrived, thanks to private fundraising that has helped fund renovations to FSU's trademark historic brick buildings, including Ruby Diamond Auditorium, which is getting a $35 million facelift.
UF president Bernie Machen said such improvements are a testament to Wetherell's determination, personality and political acumen.
"I think there is nobody in Florida who knows as much about higher education in this state and how it works with the Legislature," said Machen, who took the helm of UF in 2004. "He has been really good for FSU."
Times researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.