Florida State University has to decide whether it wants to reach for academic excellence or a fundraiser in chief as it searches for its next president. The abrupt exit Monday of the search committee's private consultant is an embarrassing, expensive delay in the hunt for the university's next leader, but it gives FSU an opportunity to start fresh. The committee should make clear today it is dedicated to a open, competitive search and that the outcome does not hinge on which candidate has the strongest political connections.
The departure of William Funk, one of the nation's best-known higher education headhunters, is the latest black mark on a search process that appeared rigged to hand the FSU presidency to school booster and powerful state Sen. John Thrasher. The murmurs grew to a crescendo when former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former liberal Democratic legislator, wrote the committee last month to recommend Thrasher, a conservative Republican.
That led Funk last month to complain that he was having trouble persuading candidates to apply and recommend that the committee suspend its search process until Thrasher could be interviewed. That search committee agreed, which only confirmed suspicions that the fix was in. The Thrasher interview was delayed after Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston announced he was interested in the job.
This is what happens in a state where politics trumps sound education policy, where who gets a law school or a medical school is determined by legislative clout, and where higher education is starved for money. As House speaker, Thrasher pushed to abolish the powerful Board of Regents that oversaw higher education after it repeatedly objected to his demand for a new medical school at FSU. The Board of Regents was abolished, and Thrasher got his medical school. As a state senator from St. Augustine, this year Thrasher advocated dissolving FSU's longstanding joint engineering program with Florida A&M University. The Legislature eventually approved a study to review the issue. To paraphrase D'Alemberte's recommendation, Thrasher's best qualification is that he knows how to work the levers of power at the state Capitol.
Higher education is corrupted when money and politics take precedence over everything else, such as the FSU economics department's own dalliance with the billionaire Koch brothers. In exchange for a few million dollars, the department gave the donors a say in faculty hires. So much for ensuring academics is free of political persuasion — or for improving the department's stature among other institutions of higher learning.
Thrasher has been saying all the right things, including that he would check his partisanship at the door. His passion for his alma mater is sincere, and he may wind up being the best available choice to become FSU's next president. But he should have to prove himself against a national pool of qualified candidates, including accomplished academics.
The committee should send the message today that it will settle for nothing less than a competitive, rigorous open search.