Now it is clear just how far a major Florida university has to sink into the political morass and embarrass itself before higher education leaders raise their voices. Even the Board of Governors declared last week that Florida State University's worldwide presidential search for Sen. John Thrasher looked bad. For a board that buckled to political pressure to go along with the creation of an unneeded new university in Polk County pushed by another powerful state senator, that's saying something. There is even a chance that some good can come from FSU's mismanaged search for a new president.
Board of Governors member Dean Colson bluntly said the mismanagement of FSU's search "damaged the national reputation" of the university, and he's right. FSU started its search for a successor to Eric Barron, who returned to Penn State University, and immediately started flirting with Thrasher. The powerful state senator and former House speaker steered millions in public money to the school and pushed the creation of its medical school through the Legislature. It was so clear that the fix was in that the private consultant coordinating the search recommended that the process be suspended until Thrasher was interviewed, then resigned amid the uproar. What the consultant, Bill Funk, really ought to do is return the $61,000 he was paid for helping create a mess.
To be fair, FSU did not just invent the cross-pollination of power politics and university presidents. Some of the university's previous presidential searches were dominated by political figures. Some failed, and some — such as former state legislator Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte and former House Speaker T.K. Wetherell — became presidents of the university. But unlike Thrasher, they had proven academic credentials. Governors also have played roles over the years in hiring, firing and keeping university presidents at the University of Florida and elsewhere. At Florida Atlantic University, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater was among 10 interviewed for president earlier this year, and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux was among three finalists. In a state that is starving higher education and relying more heavily on student tuition, no wonder schools looking for new leaders focus on political connections and fundraising as much as academic excellence.
Against that backdrop, Board of Governors chairman Mori Hosseini has made some reasonable suggestions for reforms that university system Chancellor Marshall Criser will help refine and bring back to the board in August. They include putting more members of the Board of Governors on presidential search committees, creating common job descriptions and qualifications, establishing benchmarks to standardize searches and creating guidelines for compensation for university presidents. All of these are worth exploring to restore some integrity to presidential searches across the state, and they would rein in the boards of trustees at individual universities who are more easily swayed by powerful alums.
The FSU search is restarting from scratch, with a new search firm and an application deadline in September. That time line is ambitious, and it is more important that the process be fair and open than that it be finished quickly. This is the delicious irony, regardless of whether Thrasher becomes the next FSU president: The lawmaker who helped abolish the powerful statewide board that oversaw higher education has emboldened the new one to become stronger by overplaying his own hand.