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Sometimes, pressin' flesh better than hittin' books

The departing president of Florida State University, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, is a distinguished man, a former president of the American Bar Association. He is retiring amid high praise as one of the school's best leaders.

But back in 1993, when D'Alemberte was first chosen as FSU's president, it was against the recommendation of the faculty, which preferred the school's provost. Who was this outsider, this lawyer with no "academic" experience, to lead a research university?

This often happens in the choosing of university presidents.

When Betty Castor was first hired at the University of South Florida, a lot of people sneered _ she was just a politician, a former legislator and education commissioner. One USF professor sniffed that she couldn't "think on her feet." She did a strong job.

Marshall Criser, then a lawyer from Palm Beach, was selected in 1983 as president of the University of Florida. He had been on the Board of Regents, a political appointment. He, too, did an excellent job. It was under Criser's leadership that UF was admitted to the prestigious American Association of Universities.

Being a modern university president clearly is more than an academic role. Certainly academics and research always should be paramount. But the role also takes diplomatic and political skills, salesmanship and the ability to raise money.

This brings us to the subject of Thomas Kent Wetherell, known as T.K., who is in the running to succeed D'Alemberte.

Wetherell is, on the surface, the sort of fellow who displeases those who want their university presidents to be purely "academic."

For one thing, he was a star football player at FSU in the 1960s. That is crime enough to indict him in the ivory tower.

For another, he grew up to be a drawlin', joke-tellin', back-slappin' politician. He even rose to become speaker of the Florida House in 1990-1992.

But he is an academic, too, after all.

People often are surprised to find out that Wetherell, 56, possesses a doctorate in the field of education administration _ the so-called "terminal degree," or highest degree possible in a field, which purists insist upon.

His doctoral dissertation dealt with the subject of classroom teachers who quit during their first year on the job, because they were not prepared for the conditions they faced.

From 1995 until last year, Wetherell was president of Tallahassee Community College. During his tenure the school reversed a trend of losing students and grew to 30,000. The school doubled in size, renovated buildings, acquired the highest-paid faculty in the state system and went from having a money-losing foundation to one with $2.5-million.

"Being a speaker of the House and dealing with the egos of 119 other people," Wetherell said Thursday, "and dealing with the egos of all the people inside a school is kind of equal, one and the same."

Wetherell is a viable candidate. It depends on what FSU's board wants.

Frankly, the higher-ed industry is just as gossipy and perception-driven as any other. If the FSU board chooses Wetherell, it will have to put up with a certain amount of sniffing on the national level. School hires ex-jock alum.

If FSU wants to polish its buttons on that stage, it ought to go kidnap a blue-blooded, journal-publishin' Ivy Leaguer by convincing him or her that FSU wants to be the Harvard/Yale/Whatever of the South.

But in Wetherell the university gets somebody who loves FSU entirely, a bigger-than-life personality, somebody who can stand up and steer the school through the turmoil that currently governs Florida's higher educational system.

Not an endorsement. Just saying they could do worse.

I asked Wetherell, since he was interested in being a university president, whether he had considered the other big vacancy in Florida's system _ the presidency of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Wetherell laughed and then thought for a few seconds. No, he has no interest in any other school, including even Harvard, he declared. "Besides, so far, the Gators haven't called yet," he added. "I don't want to offend my sister institution, not in any shape, manner or form." Of course not.