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FSU Trustees Choose 'Lightning Rod' President In Thrasher

"Down with Thrasher" sign
Jessica Palombo

This week Florida State University picked Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) as its next president. His selection follows months of discord as some FSU faculty and students demanded the role be filled by an academic instead. On Monday and Tuesday, those tensions boiled over at a turbulent final two search meetings. 

Who better to convey the drama of FSU’s presidential search than someone who masters dramatic flair for a living? Enter Matthew Lata.

“My function here at Florida State is to direct operas,” the professor told the university’s presidential search committee Monday. “And this whole process has actually kind of reminded me of an opera: We’ve had heroes and we’ve had high drama. We’ve had villains. We’ve had choruses of assent and choruses of dissent. We almost had a battle scene.”

Those falling squarely in the “choruses of assent” category included FSU trustee and Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters, who said Tuesday, “For one, I don’t think you can question his passion, his loyalty, I think he bleeds garnet and gold.”

FSU law student Harrison DuBosar said, “He just shows a true appreciation and love for our university. And we’re at a time now when we can have this true Seminole leader.”

Search committee Chairman Ed Burr said, “We have John Thrasher, who certainly understands funding and state politics and fundraising.”

And trustee Kathryn Ballard said, “I think he is an inspiring leader who can help us heal, which we need healing right now, and with that being said, I would like to make the motion to make John Thrasher our next president.”

Those making up the “choruses of dissent” include FSU Associate Professor of Communications Jennifer Proffitt. “Having ties to the Legislature is of course an important point, but it’s not the only point,” she says.

Oceanography Professor Jeff Chanton said, “I worry about the message that you’re going to send if you appoint him, because appointing him would be incredibly dismissive of the faculty.”

English Ph.D. student Kimberly Tate Anderson told the trustees, “John Thrasher may be your friend, but you need to tell him no.”

And just before voting against Thrasher, FSU Faculty Senate president and trustee Gary Tyson said, “Right now this is just too scary. This is the scary choice, not the safe choice.”

Then there was the mob of angry students who marched up the steps of the school’s conference center, where the meeting was held, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, John Thrasher has got to go!”

When the curtain fell, the trustees had made their controversial choice on a vote of 11-to-2. Before that, though, they interviewed the soon-to-be president.

Here are some of Thrasher’s thoughts in response to their questions. First up: Athletics.

“Clearly so many of our friends and so many people who are out there who care and love Florida State University look at the face, and sometimes that’s athletics,” he says, “but athletics should not be promoted any higher than anything else in our university; it should be comparable to everything else that we do.”

Thrasher says to break into the top 25 of research institutions, he hopes to realign faculty salaries with those at other top institutions and to hire more faculty, both of which require more money.

“Whether it’s the private sector, which I hope we get a chance to talk about, or the public sector or grants and things from the federal government, all of those things go toward getting us to the top 25,” he says.

Thrasher also addressed becoming what trustee Peggy Rolando called a “lightning rod” during the search process. The Faculty Senate had unanimously passed a resolution supporting any of the three finalists besides Thrasher, and several faculty and students had publicly expressed opposition to his candidacy.

“I respect the people who have differences of opinion about myself and my qualifications,” he says, “and all I can say is if I become president of Florida State University I will reach out to anybody who wants to sit down and talk about opportunities to advance this university.”

Thrasher’s presidency still has one more hurdle to get over before becoming official. The state university system Board of Governors is expected to vote on the matter in early November. 

Here are WFSU's live tweets from the FSU Board of Trustees meeting on Sept. 23, 2014: