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FSU presidency appears to be John Thrasher's to lose

TALLAHASSEE — For three months, he tried to deflect attention.

State Sen. John Thrasher wants to become Florida State University's next president, but he demurred, steering questions about the job to other topics while acknowledging the buzz his name generated.

The 70-year-old Republican from St. Augustine has no choice now. A popular former FSU president nominated him for the prestigious position and the school's search advisory committee agreed to halt its work and interview him right away.

All before he formally applied.

Given Thrasher's lack of academic credentials, critics say this connected politician is being handed an exclusive, inside track to the presidency.

"I have to sell it to some people; I realize that," Thrasher said in an interview with the Times/Herald. "I don't take it for granted. I don't take it lightly."

Search consultant Bill Funk told advisory committee members to give Thrasher a prompt "up or down" vote. Rumors that a powerhouse Republican lawmaker with deep ties to FSU is a shoo-in have deterred "premium potential candidates" from applying.

"We are not endorsing John for the role," Funk said. "But we are saying that John is casting a long shadow. It's limiting our opportunity to put together the kind of pool that this committee and that this university deserves."

About a dozen lackluster applicants submitted paperwork by the May 21 meeting, but on Saturday, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston announced he had applied for the job.

Still, the committee agreed with Funk and has blocked off three hours June 11 for Thrasher's interview. If the 25-person group likes what he says and interviews with stakeholder groups go well, the Board of Trustees could name Thrasher FSU's 15th president by the end of the month.

The union-bashing, trial-lawyer-antagonizing lion of the conservatives, with deep ties to Gov. Rick Scott, would find himself working in a liberal academic setting for the first time.

• • •

Thrasher submitted his application late last week. He also started preparing for the interview, dialing up old friends and FSU insiders who could help him learn more about the university.

He already knows a ton considering his deep history at the school, with bachelor's and law degrees and as the first chairman of its Board of Trustees. During two stints in the Legislature and in the private sector as an attorney and a lobbyist, Thrasher has made FSU a priority.

Thrasher says he can deliver the public and private funding Florida State needs as it remains focused on breaking into the top 25 public universities. The next president needs to raise the remaining half of a $1 billion capital campaign launched under former president Eric Barron.

"I have been a successful fundraiser and I believe that I have the experience, the relationships, and important associations to be an effective fundraiser for Florida State University," Thrasher wrote in a cover letter with his application.

Thrasher is a well-known rainmaker for the university — the College of Medicine building doesn't bear his name for nothing — and the Republican Party, where he served a year as state chairman. He also heads up Scott's re-election campaign.

University presidents frequent the Capitol, where Thrasher has been a powerful player, pleading with lawmakers for money or weighing in on key legislation.

If Thrasher gets the job, he'll move from one side of the desk to the other. He says that change in position will come with a change in mind-set. As president, he will work for the Board of Trustees and represent FSU students, faculty and alumni instead of the taxpayers of a conservative district in Northeast Florida.

"I certainly don't intend to bring my Republican credentials and philosophy," Thrasher said. "I intend to bring my Florida State University philosophy."

Thrasher's net worth was $6.4 million as of June 2013, but the presidency also is a lucrative job. Barron made $405,200 a year, a big jump from the $41,400 Thrasher earns as a state senator.

• • •

Advisory committee members were divided on the decision to suspend the national search and vet Thrasher.

"This is from my perspective highly irregular that we look at one person and say 'yes' or 'no' and the suggestion that this is going to level the playing field," music professor Cliff Madsen said prior to the vote.

Madsen, a faculty member for 53 years, said there have been controversial picks during his tenure but never such a controversial process.

A majority on the committee agreed Thrasher created unique circumstances. Allan Bense was a freshman in the Florida House when Thrasher was speaker. Now Bense chairs the FSU Board of Trustees and is a member of the search committee who believes Thrasher deserves a chance to make his case.

"John Thrasher is a good man, he is an honorable person and he loves Florida State so please at least be good listeners," Bense said.

Faculty union president Jennifer Proffitt started a blog to chronicle the search process but lately uses it as a platform to discuss criticism. Despite Thrasher rumors that started as soon as Barron stepped down, she says she was optimistic the committee would operate in a transparent, honest manner.

"Part of me believed in the search," she said. "(I thought) this couldn't happen."

Proffitt says the job listing in trade publications removed "strong academic credentials" from the criteria, even though the search committee initially asked to include it, and inserted "loyalty to Florida State."

"We were like, 'Why? Why are they doing this?' " Proffitt said. "It really led us to believe that the process is unfair and that they have a presumptive candidate."

• • •

During his eight years in the House and five in the Senate, Thrasher has steered hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to FSU. He fought to include his alma mater in a proposal awarding "pre-eminent" status, and the opportunity for extra funding, to the University of Florida.

But Thrasher's biggest win was in 2000 when he capitalized on his position as House speaker to establish FSU's medical school.

Thrasher's alumni friends are speaking up on his behalf. The search committee has received 10 letters of recommendation, most notably one from former president Sandy D'Alemberte.

Like Thrasher, D'Alemberte was criticized ahead of receiving the job because he lacked academic credentials and was better known for outspoken politics.

Another popular former FSU president, T.K. Wetherell, also came to the position after a career in politics. But Wetherell and D'Alemberte had some higher education experience: Wetherell as president at Tallahassee Community College and D'Alemberte as dean of the FSU law school.

• • •

The University of Florida recently launched its presidential search by approving a job description that included "distinguished academic career." President Bernie Machen, who delayed retirement in 2013 at Gov. Scott's request, will step down at the end of the year.

Although critics of the FSU search have used UF's process to provide contrast, there are concerns UF's job description was similarly tailored to clear the path for a preferred candidate, provost Joe Glover.

In many ways, FSU struggles to shake UF's shadow and gain recognition for more than its football team. UF has the higher ranking — No. 14 to FSU's No. 40 — and a bigger endowment — $1.4 billion compared to FSU's $465 million.

"Whoever the next president is has to raise a lot of money," Bense said.

Despite controversy surrounding Thrasher's bid, he is a mystery to many students. The medical school facility on FSU's campus is named after him, but students who take chemistry and biology classes still call it the College of Medicine building.

Recent graduate Andrew Seif­ter, 21, Googled Thrasher after seeing a Facebook post about him being the front-runner. He concluded that hiring a former legislator with fundraising ability may be the best next step for the university.

"I feel like universities are becoming more and more of a business," he said, "and what they're geared for is raising money."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or tmitchell@tampabay.com.

FSU presidency appears to be John Thrasher's to lose 06/01/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 1, 2014 11:09pm]

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