FSU was warned that new search for president could be a "sham"

Published Jul. 15, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State University is trying to jump-start its tumultuous search for a new president, but top officials have already been warned that the process could be viewed as a "sham" because of the candidacy of powerful state Sen. John Thrasher, who is seen as the front-runner.

Late last month, FSU officials agreed to revamp the search and wait until September to find a replacement for Eric Barron, who abruptly left FSU to take the top position at Penn State University.

But emails obtained by the Associated Press show that the consultant first hired to help FSU told the head of the search committee that the university was trying to "concoct a competitive process." Those same emails show that Thrasher has reached out directly to top FSU officials and that the former campaign manager of Gov. Rick Scott has given advice about the search.

Bill Funk, the consultant who resigned in early June after FSU's faculty questioned his work, told trustee Ed Burr that FSU would not be able to attract viable candidates as long as Thrasher, 70, remained a candidate for the job.

Thrasher, an alumnus of FSU, lacks academic credentials but is a former House speaker and current chairman of Scott's re-election campaign.

It was Funk who initially suggested FSU interview Thrasher first before considering other candidates. But FSU officials dropped that plan after other candidates, including state Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston, applied for the post. The decision to designate Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, as the main candidate created a backlash among some faculty and students. Now FSU is accepting applications until early September before coming up with at least three candidates for the FSU board to consider.

Two days before Polston applied, however, Thrasher himself forwarded to a top FSU official an email from an FSU professor who complained Thrasher's supporters pushed ahead too quickly.