FSU Board Chair Says University Integrity Is Intact, Calls Presidential Search A 'Catch-22'

May 30, 2014

As Florida State University continues its search for a new president many faculty and observers are crying foul over the process.

Faculty union president  Jennifer Proffitt says the search committee agreed on getting a president with strong academic credentials, but it is not panning out that way.

“Search committees/search firms set deadlines so that people know when they can apply by and that wasn’t done. And the criteria the search committee voted on in April wasn’t followed and that’s the big concern by the faculty," she says.

There is no deadline for FSU’s search. ‘Strong academic credentials’ is listed among the “other” qualifications. Leadership, legislative experience and fundraising and even university “loyalty” are rated higher, leading to allegations the search has been rigged in Senator John Thrasher’s favor.

“That’s a tough question," Proffitt says. "I think there’s been signs, evidence all along that something was happening. So, we’ve known from the beginning Senator was interested in the position. But again, it’s not about him, it’s about the process.”

When the search committee named Thrasher its sole interviewee, about 10 applications had already been submitted—including high-level administrators at the University of North Texas, and the respected Oakridge National Research Laboratory. There’s also a Former CEO of the Washington Post Company. The consultant hired to recruit candidates, Bill Funk, has said the prospect of Thrasher’s candidacy has kept other well-qualified applicants from applying.  

“Many things have been written about him. It’s the topic of discussion locally and nationally, so it’s not as if as a public figure, he’s unknown," Funk told the committee at its May 21 meeting.

Not everyone is buying his opinion.

"It’s almost looking like a done deal," says Barbara Peterson, President of the First Amendment Foundation.

FSU has conducted the search in the open, and in compliance with the state’s open-government “Sunshine Law”. She says just because the process has been open, doesn’t mean it’s been fair, pointing to the search committee’s vote to interview Thrasher, who hadn’t applied for the job at the time.

“Claiming that no one else will apply because this person is considered so much a shoo-in that they don’t want to apply. I see it as a subversion of the process," Peterson says.

The Presidential Search is the latest in a series of high-profile issues at Florida State University in the past six months. The school is still facing blow-back for how it handling of sexual assault allegations against it’s star quarterback and a failed push led by Senator Thrasher to split the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is still being felt.

“Yes, their integrity is being called into question," Peterson says, "And what they should have learned is that circling the wagons, trying to protect and control the release of information—it doesn’t work.”

But Allen Bense, chairman of Florida State University’s Board of Trustees, says he disagrees with that characterization.

“I don’t think there is. We have the #1 football team in the country and we have a bulls-eye on our back. The FSU-Engineering: I don’t understand how that draws attention to our integrity. We're trying to be one of the top 25 universities in America."

Bense says the university search committee is in a Catch-22 when it comes to what to do with Thrasher.

“How do we get over that? I mean, I’m not being feisty, I’m just saying, I don’t know how to get through that.”

Bense says just because Thrasher has an interview doesn’t mean he’ll get the job. He points to the recent hiring of Florida Atlantic University’s new president, who beat out two politicians, former Congressman George LeMieux and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

"If the president at Harvard University says 'I’m going to apply at FSU', I can tell you that will get my attention. That’s an ‘A’ player. The door is wide open. But the problem is, as long as the perception is out there that it’s Senator Thrasher’s [job] the pool of talent to be the next president will be thin.”

Thrasher will be interviewed at FSU June 11.