A public university with ambitions to be ranked among the best should not be run like a private club. Yet the fix appears to be in at Florida State University for John Thrasher, one of Florida's most powerful lawmakers and an FSU alumnus, to become the school's next president. Thrasher may be an attractive option for a university that needs to raise more money, but he should have to compete for the job.
The FSU presidential search committee abandoned all pretense of a fair and responsible search Wednesday when it voted to suspend its effort to attract a pool of candidates until Thrasher is interviewed. The vote came a day after former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte nominated Thrasher and the headhunter told the committee he was having a hard time attracting candidates because of the buzz about Thrasher.
This is what happens when state leaders play politics with state universities and search committees don't do their jobs. Thrasher, now a state senator from St. Augustine and chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, has long been one of the Legislature's most dogged Seminole boosters. He used his 1998-2000 tenure as House speaker to secure a new medical school for his alma mater and to demolish the Board of Regents governance model that many Seminoles felt kept FSU permanently in the shadow of the University of Florida. In this year's legislative session, Thrasher led an unexpected charge to split FSU's joint engineering school with Florida A&M University. He failed, but he planted a seed that will surely return in coming sessions.
Understandably, the negative reaction from faculty and students has been swift. And even D'Alemberte seemed to acknowledge the unseemliness: "In an ideal world, I would not say that John was the best candidate, but in the world we live in I would say he is the best candidate," D'Alemberte told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Thrasher's supporters argue there is precedent. Former FSU president T.K. Wetherell, for example, had been House speaker. Former Florida Atlantic University president Frank Brogan had been lieutenant governor. But both men had also had prominent education careers. Former University of South Florida president Betty Castor had served as the state's elected education commissioner.
But in each instance, search committees required all three to go head-to-head with other candidates. Thrasher, 70, is a lawyer and former chairman of FSU's Board of Trustees who may be a good fit. But the game should not be rigged, and he should be measured against other qualified candidates.