Florida State University officials announced Friday that president John Thrasher soon will be retiring and that a search will begin for a successor.
Thrasher, who has led FSU for nearly six years as the university’s 15th president, will remain in the job until a new leader takes over, according to a news release. Board of Trustees chair Ed Burr said the university will begin a national search for a new president earlier than anticipated because of the potential impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are unusual times,” Burr said in the release. “It is incumbent on this board to ensure a smooth transition.”
Thrasher, 76, was appointed in 2014 after a long career in politics that included two years as Florida House speaker, five years in the Florida Senate and a stint as chairman of the Republican Party in 2010. He also worked in the private sector as an attorney and partner in a governmental relations firm, as well as serving on the FSU Board of Trustees.
His passion for higher education started even earlier though, he said in an interview Friday.
Thrasher said he came from a family where neither of his parents had more than an eighth-grade education. His aunt, he said, helped support him to go FSU as an undergraduate, where he studied business.
He then joined the U.S. Army, where he received the Army Commendation Medal in Germany and was awarded two Bronze Stars for service in Vietnam. After being honorably discharged, he got his degree from FSU’s law school.
“That opened a lot of doors for me,” Thrasher said. “But for those two degrees, I’d never be where I am today. I want other young people — every single one of them, regardless of what their background is — to have that opportunity. Higher education opens those doors to be able to make that difference, in their community or state or world.”
State Sen. Tom Lee, who has known Thrasher since the 1990s, said he thinks Thrasher’s presidency offers a lesson for all in divisive times.
Lee called Thrasher’s appointment one of the “most tumultuous, nastiest” selection processes he can remember.
He said he understood why many faculty may have been reluctant to give Thrasher a chance, when his record on paper was one of what Lee called "firebrand conservatism.”
“He bled and garnet gold,” Lee said. “We knew him outside the Capitol well enough that he would grow into the role. ... I think, over time, his people skills, his listening skills, his genuine concern have won over all the academicians. He now leaves with the support of many people who were concerned he wasn’t the right fit.”
Eric Chicken, president of FSU’s Faculty Senate, said faculty members had a good working relationship with Thrasher.
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“I will be sorry to see him leave,” Chicken said. “He went out of his way to make himself accessible to faculty and students, and I have found him to be receptive to faculty concerns and suggestions regarding the running of this university. I hope our next president will be as open as he was.”
Under Thrasher, the university raised $1 billion for its capital campaign, expanded its research capacity and soared in annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which have come to be an important measure of success in higher education. Florida State went from 43rd among the nation’s public universities in 2016 to being tied for 18th this year.
Thrasher credits the ascent to strategic commitment to student success initiatives across the university.
“I’m proud of our student success," he said, referring to such measures as graduation and retention rates. “It’s not the numbers so much, though that impacts how you’re perceived around the country.”
He has also faced his share of difficult moments as leader — from a 2014 shooting at the school library, to a Title IX lawsuit from the woman who accused Jameis Winston of rape, to the departure of football coach Jimbo Fisher and the brief suspension of Greek life after the death of a pledge.
“He’s faced some challenges and he’s navigated them all,” Lee said.
His years-long relationships with members of the Board of Trustees and legislators, Lee said, made him a resourceful leader.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, reached on Friday, called Thrasher a friend.
“Few people have had as great an impact on the state of Florida than John Thrasher,” Bush said in an email. “With his support more than 20 years ago, we enacted revolutionary education policies that raised student achievement for all Florida students. As House Speaker and Senate President, he ensured that fiscal prudence and limited government kept Florida the best place to live, learn and dream. At Florida State, his passion for his alma mater fueled the university’s rise into one of the nation’s top research institutions.”
Thrasher said he looks forward to focusing on his family and other interests, including golf. However, he said he still has work to do before a successor is appointed. He said he believes higher education has an important role to play, especially now in a pandemic-ridden world.
“Even with the COVID stuff going on, community colleges included, higher education plays a critically important role in what our workforce needs,” he said. “These institutions are making a difference, and we can’t lose sight of that.”
The university’s trustees will meet in the next few weeks to discuss setting up a search committee and a process for finding a new president.
Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report.