TALLAHASSEE — Long considered to be the candidate to beat, state Sen. John Thrasher was short on specifics and easily rattled during a series of interviews Monday for the presidency of Florida State University.
As the first of four finalists to be invited on campus for daylong interviews, Thrasher, 70, had several hours to sell his vision for FSU to students, staff and faculty. But he spent much of that time dodging questions about his political beliefs and promising the FSU community his devotion, but only in vague terms.
"If I get to this job, I am going to be an advocate for Florida State University for every single constituency whether it be faculty, students or whoever," he said.
Thrasher is expected to win re-election to his northeast Florida state Senate seat. When asked whether he would still commit to increasing faculty salaries, decreasing student debt and helping FSU improve its national standing if he did not become president and remained in the Legislature, he demurred.
As a state senator, he said, he is responsible only to the people who elected him. "I represent them, and I'll follow their wishes," Thrasher said.
That was the overall theme of his interview. On one hand, Thrasher sees his political experience and legislative ties as an asset to FSU as it aims to raise $500 million and bolster its state support. At the same time, Thrasher is asking those who are leery of his conservative political record to trust that he will leave that all behind if he gets the job.
He faced questions throughout the day about his views on evolution, employee unions, same-sex partnerships and global warming. He frequently avoided stating his personal opinion on topics.
For example, he was asked about a letter he signed along with other lawmakers in 1995 that said a Walt Disney Co. policy extending health benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees was "anti-family."
Thrasher responded by saying FSU's domestic partner policy was strong and he would follow it because the board of trustees, his potential bosses, had signed off on it.
A question about climate change during his meeting with faculty led to a particularly testy exchange. A few people who appeared to be students giggled when Thrasher responded to the question by saying he wanted to hear from FSU scientists before taking a position.
"If I'm going to get heckled by the front row from people who are laughing and making jokes about it, then I'm not going to stay," he said.
The group quieted down and Thrasher completed the segment. But it was a puzzling exchange that made him seem unprepared for the day, even though scientists have been pushing Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Scott, to take the issue more seriously in recent months.
Thrasher said that he expected tough questions and thought he was treated fairly during the interviews. As for threatening to walk out, Thrasher said he heard laughter after each of his first few responses and was simply fed up.
"There were a couple of them being disrespectful," he said, though he quickly added, "No big deal.''
"I thought you did a great job," said his wife, Jean Thrasher, who has sat in on every interview.
FSU faculty have been among the people most vocally opposed to Thrasher's candidacy, mostly because of his lack of academic leadership experience. The Faculty Senate approved a resolution last week saying its members did not think he was right for the job and the faculty union has an online petition with more than 1,000 electronic signatures.
Students are more divided. Last week, a group of FSU seniors announced the launch of the website supportjohnthrasher.com, while other student groups showed up at Monday's interview with anti-Thrasher signs.
Thrasher, a political power player and FSU alum who has never run a university, continues to be the most high-profile and controversial of the finalists.
The other three finalists will have similar one-day interviews throughout the week.
Former West Virginia University provost Michele Wheatly will interview today; Colorado State University System chancellor Michael Martin will meet with FSU supporters Wednesday; and Richard Marchase, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will be in Tallahassee on Friday.
The search committee will meet Monday to discuss the finalists and send at least three names to the FSU board of trustees, which will make a final selection Sept. 23 after a final round of interviews.
Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected] Follow @tbtia.