1. Florida Politics

Despite Thrasher buzz, FSU trustees insist president search is wide open

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Published Mar. 8, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. John Thrasher's name is on the tip of many tongues speculating about who will become the next Florida State University president.

But members of the school's Board of Trustees say they'll conduct a careful national search to find the best leader.

Friday, the group met to appoint an interim president who will take over once President Eric Barron leaves for Pennsylvania State University next month. They named 27 people to a search advisory committee, including high-profile political figures and FSU supporters.

Among them is Board of Trustees chairman Allan Bense, a former House speaker who served alongside Thrasher. He insisted there is no front-runner.

"I want to make sure that we get a good pool," Bense said. "And I think if I all of a sudden say I think it's John Smith or whoever, I think that shrinks the pool of applicants."

Thrasher, 70, blames the not-so-quiet campaign on his behalf on friends who know his affinity for FSU.

"I can't control what they're doing," Thrasher said Thursday. "I can control what I'm doing."

Thrasher is chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign. Asked about rumors that Scott or his staff was involved in the FSU search, a governor's spokesman was evasive Thursday. "Governor Scott supports a search committee process that will select a new president at FSU who will be committed to providing Florida students with an affordable, high-quality education,'' was the official statement.

Thrasher earned his bachelor's and law degrees from FSU, and has funneled millions to the school during his time as a lawmaker and also when he was working in the private sector as a lobbyist. He is a former chairman of the FSU Board of Trustees, and the FSU School of Medicine building was named for him, a recognition of his key role in creating the school.

The St. Augustine Republican says his focus is the legislative session, and getting Scott re-elected.

Trustees agreed Friday that FSU Provost Garnett Stokes will serve as interim president once Barron leaves on April 2. She is not barred from applying for the permanent job if she wants to.

The FSU search advisory committee will hold its first meeting in two weeks. Among the members are former Senate President John McKay, who also served in the Legislature with Thrasher, and former FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford, brother of House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, and former state Sen. Al Lawson, who is now a lobbyist for FSU, are also on the committee. So is Ash Williams, a member of the FSU Foundation board who oversees the state pension fund.

Susie Busch-Transou, who had been an FSU trustee but was not reappointed by Scott, is also on the search committee. She is thought to have fallen out of favor with the governor after supporting a small tuition increase last year.

Her replacement on the board, Kathryn Ballard, is also on the search committee. Ballard is the wife of powerful lobbyist Brian Ballard and daughter of former state attorney general and secretary of state Jim Smith.

FSU trustee Mark Hillis is not on the search committee, but the Tallahassee resident and retired businessman says he plans to attend all meetings. He was adamant that the search committee provide the trustees with more than one finalist to chose from.

Trustee Ed Burr, a Jacksonville businessman who will chair the search committee, said the committee should not be given a formula. The committee's first task is to hire a search firm. Then it will advertise for the job and soliciting applications.

Hillis said the buzz about Thrasher is not a concern.

"I'm not pressured at all," he said. "My bottom line is what is in the best interest of Florida State University and to find the best candidate available."

Tia Mitchell can be contacted at