Amid furor over John Thrasher and FSU, path from politics to academics well-traveled

Sen. John Thrasher’s interview scheduled for Wednesday has been canceled, but he remains the front-runner to become FSU’s next president and many believe the job is his to lose.
Sen. John Thrasher’s interview scheduled for Wednesday has been canceled, but he remains the front-runner to become FSU’s next president and many believe the job is his to lose.
Published June 8, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — The uproar over Sen. John Thrasher's candidacy for Florida State University president seemed to intensify in recent days, with the faculty passing resolutions, students holding meetings, and the search committee chairman backtracking on an earlier promise to give Thrasher special consideration.

Front and center for Thrasher critics: his lack of academic bona fides and his deeply conservative political record.

But many former politicians, from the right and the left, have survived similar doubts to win university presidencies and eventually win over some skeptics. Despite the controversy, Thrasher is still the front-runner for the FSU post and many believe the job is his to lose.

Especially at FSU, which is seeking to bolster its image as a research institution, there's a strong argument for having a top-flight academic in charge. But in an era of spiraling costs and tightening budgets, the need for a leader who can raise money may prove stronger.

Thrasher fits that bill, says former FSU president Sandy D'Alemberte, himself a liberal legislator-turned-beloved academic leader. In his letter nominating Thrasher for the post, D'Alemberte cited a list of others who walked a similar path from politics to academics, such as former FSU president T.K. Wetherell, former University of South Florida president Betty Castor and current University of North Florida president John Delaney.

And this is by no means solely a Florida phenomenon — consider former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, now leading Purdue University after a contentious selection process.

Thrasher, D'Alemberte said Friday, is "the best person I know to step in and reverse the problem of resources in a rapid way. If we get a new person who has to acquaint themselves with Florida, acquaint themselves with the political process and acquaint themselves with potential donors, it will slow down FSU's advancement."

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Thrasher's interview scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, but the search committee will still meet to discuss the next steps like an application deadline and a time line for when the new president might be announced.

At an FSU student forum Wednesday night, student body president Stefano Cavallaro was asked whether the Board of Trustees was looking for a politician who can raise funds or an academic who can raise standards.

Cavallaro, who also serves as a trustee, said they want both.

"We're looking for an everyman," he said.

Superman might have been a better description, said noted USF political science professor Susan MacManus, an FSU alumnus.

"It's a difficult dichotomy," MacManus said. "And it's really rare where someone has both credentials equally strong in both areas."

Thrasher has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in state and private funding to his alma mater, where the medical school even bears his name. But he has never worked at any educational institution and as a legislator opposed traditions sacred to faculty, such as unions and tenure.

Thrasher likes to remind people that the chancellor of the state university system, Marshall Criser III, came from the business community and UNF's Delaney is a former mayor.

"There is enough evidence around the country to show that there have been very successful 'nontraditional' or 'nonacademic' presidents at universities," Thrasher said Thursday.

At Purdue University, Daniels' selection was more fraught than Thrasher's situation. As Indiana's staunchly conservative governor, he angered teacher unions with his policies and faced a censorship controversy. Like Thrasher, he was criticized for using his political ties to get the job and lacking academic credentials.

Purdue is where FSU wants to be: a top 25 public university.

Professor David Williams, who just completed a term as chairman of the Purdue faculty senate, supported Daniels from the start, but says even doubters have reconsidered. He praised him for freezing tuition for the first time in 27 years, streamlining the budget — and committing to teaching a history seminar.

"He is very smart, a very quick study, a voracious reader and difficult not to like even if you disagree with his ideas," Williams said in an email.

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Liberal Democrats like D'Alemberte have raised the same academic skepticism, only to win over many doubters in the end. Another example: Betty Castor, the former Democratic legislator from Tampa, education commissioner and member of the Board of Regents who was appointed USF's president in 1994. Though well-liked in the community, her lack of a Ph.D. raised hackles among some academics.

"I found that the issue with faculty generally was they want to be heard and they want you to understand their concerns," Castor said Friday. "So I listened very carefully to my faculty, and I worked with the Faculty Senate."

She also used her Tallahassee know-how to boost state funding for USF, helping it make strides as a research institution during her five-year tenure.

Like Daniels, Thrasher has a statewide reputation for supporting conservative positions that some consider anti-education.

Thrasher says he will capitalize on the skills and relationships he built, but will pivot away from the partisanship. He promised to step down as Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign chairman if he gets the FSU job.

D'Alemberte says he believes Thrasher will join the ranks of former politicians who successfully navigate a new and challenging role.

"I think John is a person of independent judgement and has shown himself to be effective so often that I think he can get past'' the controversy, D'Alemberte said.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or