TALLAHASSEE -- A search that began in March and stalled over the summer because of the long shadow cast by a powerful state senator ended Tuesday when the Florida State University Board of Trustees named Sen. John Thrasher the school’s new president.
“I am honored to have been selected by the Board of Trustees to serve as Florida State University’s next president,” Thrasher said in a statement. “I look forward to leading the university to even higher levels of excellence. My goal is to advance the faculty and the research, service and teaching mission of this university. I want Florida State to be the best place for students to receive an education, so they can realize their dreams.”
Board of Trustees Chairman Allan Bense, who worked alongside Thrasher in the Florida House, led the 11-2 vote. Faculty Senate President Gary Tyson, a computer science professor, and Trustee Peggy Rolando, a Miami real estate attorney, cast the only dissenting votes.
“I think he has the skills, and it’s not all about money, but money is the big thing,” Bense said after the vote.
Supporters say Thrasher, 70, is the best person to help FSU reach its $1 billion fundraising goal and aspirations to become one of the nation’s top 25 public universities.
Opponents say the fix was in from the start and no one else ever had a chance. Some students chanted “FSU is not for sale” immediately after the vote.
“It was absolutely disgusting; I’m ashamed of this school,” said FSU junior Regina Joseph from Miramar.
Though FSU officials said early in the day that whoever was selected president would be available to reporters after the vote, Thrasher did not return to campus Tuesday evening.
The Board of Trustees interviewed all four finalists Tuesday. Thrasher, former West Virginia University Provost Michele Wheatly and Richard Marchase, vice president of research and economic development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, all appeared in person. Michael Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, was interviewed via videoconferencing due to recent surgery to repair a detached retina.
The state Board of Governors must sign off on the selection, though in the past that has been a formality. But first, FSU trustees must finalize a contract with Thrasher.
Former President Eric Barron’s salary was $395,000, and he also received fundraising bonuses.
Thrasher is running for re-election to his northeast Florida Senate seat. If he does not step down until after the November general election, Gov. Rick Scott will call a special election to find a replacement to serve the remainder of his four-year term. If he steps down before the election, Republican leaders in Thrasher’s district will appoint someone to replace him on the ballot.
“While I am hopeful that the BOG will accept the trustees’ decision, that final decision will not be known until November,” Thrasher said in a statement. “In the meantime, I intend to continue to campaign for re-election to the Senate and will continue to carry out my commitment to the people of my district. If I am ultimately selected to lead FSU, this will allow the voters to select who will be the next senator from the 6th district.”
Thrasher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a law degree from FSU, said all along that his political and business connections made him the best man for the job. But opponents, including faculty and students, cited his lack of academic credentials and conservative politics as reasons not to select him.
The Board of Trustees disagreed. Many of the members have supported Thrasher politically over the years and most were appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. Thrasher is chairman of Scott’s re-election campaign.
During his final interview Tuesday morning, Thrasher stressed his humble beginnings and ties to his alma mater, where the medical school building is named after him.
“If I’ve had any success whatsoever, I owe it to Florida State University,” Thrasher said.
A lawyer and lobbyist by trade, Thrasher served in the U.S. Army between his stints at FSU and earned two Bronze Stars in Vietnam.
He served eight years in the Florida House, including two as its speaker. He returned to the Legislature in 2009 when he won a special election for a Senate seat. Thrasher also served for a year as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and is currently chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign.
The FSU Board of Trustees said it expects Thrasher to step down from Scott’s campaign in the coming days. A spokeswoman for Thrasher told the Associated Press he is expected to do that on Wednesday.
A portion of Thrasher’s interview with the trustees focused on his tenure as the first board chairman and his long history raising funds for the university. When he mentioned having helped establish the College of Medicine, trustee Emily Fleming Duda chimed in: “I think you’re being modest, you had a lot to do with it.”
Later, trustee Andrew Haggard praised Thrasher’s tenure when he served as the Board of Trustees’ first chairman from 2001 through 2005.
“I can’t compliment you enough, John, as chairman,” Haggard said. “If you can do that same job as president ” His voice trailed off without finishing the sentence.
FSU has been without a president since Eric Barron left in April to take the top post at Penn State University. The process to hire a successor has been bumpy ever since Thrasher emerged as a candidate. Initially FSU planned to interview him ahead of all candidates but that created a backlash and ultimately led to the search being delayed.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press this past summer showed 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" that would end with Thrasher's hiring. Those same emails showed Thrasher reached out directly to top FSU officials about the job and that the former campaign manager of Scott gave advice about the search.