TALLAHASSEE — Just minutes after Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell made official his plans to step down after nearly seven years, trustees of the state's third-largest research institution shifted their attention to the kind of candidate they want to take his place.
Trustees chairman Jim Smith said FSU's continued push toward national academic prominence, coming amid steep cuts in state funding, will require a leader who is equal parts scholar and fundraiser.
"We need someone with a very, very strong academic background," said Smith, a Tallahassee lobbyist who once served as Florida's secretary of state. "And we need someone who will eagerly wake up every day and work at raising $1-billion for Florida State University."
Smith said a billion-dollar campaign for private donations is possible for FSU — and necessary, in light of the state's budget woes. Since July 2007 alone, FSU has seen its funding cut by $82-million.
"Universities in Florida are going to have to expand their ability to raise private dollars," he said.
A president from an academic background would be a change for FSU, the former women's college that now enrolls nearly 40,000 students.
Wetherell has three degrees from FSU and was a community college administrator before taking the helm of his alma mater in January 2003. But the former House speaker who parlayed his Southern charm and Capitol savvy into a lobbying stint was primarily considered a political insider. The same was true of Wetherell's predecessor, Sandy D'Alemberte, a Democratic House representative from Miami.
"They were insiders at a time when being an insider was good for Florida State University," Smith said. "But I think it's time to find someone with a very, very good academic background."
Wetherell, 63, has won over many naysayers by focusing on undergraduate and graduate research — all with an eye toward getting FSU into the invitation-only Association of American Universities. The only Florida university in the 62-member group now is the University of Florida.
Under his watch, FSU has seen its medical school expand and gain full accreditation. Through a program dubbed "Pathways of Excellence," Wetherell is hiring top professors to do cutting-edge research and create more doctoral programs.
Wetherell also expanded an academic mentoring program that gained national attention for its success in graduating minority students who are the first in their families to attend college.
He will remain at FSU, likely part time, as a tenured professor with the title of president emeritus.
He said he wants to travel with his wife, Ginger, and enjoy their children and grandchildren "and just relax and be a real person."
Wetherell's departure comes at a particularly challenging time. FSU has seen its state funding shrink in recent years as the economy went south and lawmakers made cuts. Trustees on Wednesday approved a three-year plan that will shave $56 million from FSU's budget by merging and restructuring academic programs and laying off nearly 200 faculty and staff members.
Still, trustees and faculty on Wednesday applauded Wetherell for elevating FSU's academic profile during challenging times.
"He has been a strong president for FSU with a long list of accomplishments," said music professor Jayne Standley of the Faculty Senate.
Wetherell has agreed to stay at the helm until trustees find FSU's 14th president.
Trustees at their July meeting will establish parameters for a national search.
Trustee Harold Knowles cautioned against a speedy search.
"These are transformative times. We're moving into a post-T.K. era," he said. "I don't see any reason to do this search in a hasty fashion."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.