John Thrasher has held a lot of positions in his life: speaker of the Florida House, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, lobbyist, chairman of Rick Scott's reelection campaign, and current state senator.
Yesterday the Florida State University Board of Trustees voted 11-2 to appoint Thrasher as the 15th president of the school. Once the state university system's board of governors approves the choice (generally seen as a formality), the 70-year-old Thrasher will resign from the senate and Scott's campaign to take over the president's office.
Supporters see him as a proven leader whose connections to Florida power will help the school raise the money that will return it to academic prominence.
Others see Thrasher as a Republican good ol' boy who is trading in his connections for a cushy job for which he has no experience.
Here's a quick rundown of why FSU is catching so much flack over the choice:
He's Not Qualified for the Job
It's difficult to separate the political from the practical in the debate, but perhaps the least political of objections is that Thrasher has no experience in higher-education administration whatsoever. He's a career politician taking a plum job normally reserved for career academics. True, Thrasher had served on FSU's Board of Trustees, but members are usually community, business, political, and alumni leaders who meet a few times a year and have little to do with the day-to-day running of the school.
To put it in perspective, all but one of the presidents of the state university system's 11 other schools are academics who had previous experience in college administration. The sole exception is University of North Florida's John Delaney, who had served as the mayor of Jacksonville before getting the job in 2003.
Florida A&M University president Dr. Elmira Mangum arrived at that school as a vice president of Cornell, an Ivy League school. University of Florida president Bernie Machem was formerly president of the University of Utah. Though the University of Miami is private, its president, Donna Shalala, served as chancellor (the equivalent of president) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Thrasher will also be the only public university president in Florida without a doctorate, aside from Delaney.
T. K. Wetherell served as president of FSU from 2002 to 2010, and, like Thrasher, he's a former speaker of the state house (though as a Democrat). However, he was also the former president of Tallahassee Community College and holds a doctorate from FSU in educational administration.
College presidents without academic experience or PhDs are becoming slightly more common, but even when politics aren't involved, they tend to be controversial choices anywhere. Whatever the case, Thrasher's choice definitely goes against the traditional model for picking a Florida university president.
Thrasher Never Had Any Real Competition
When former president Eric J. Barron left in April to take over the leadership of Penn State, Thrasher quickly emerged as the favorite to take the job. The board of trustees at one point was ready to interview Thrasher before any other applicant. However, outrage caused the board to rustle up some other candidates to interview, all of whom had academic experience. However, many speculated there was never really a competition, and Thrasher has now emerged victorious.
Concerns Over FSU Turning Into Some Republican College Experiment
This one might be liberal fantasy nightmare, but you can't deny that FSU is looking a little red these days.
You may remember the Koch brothers from their starring roles as the main villains on MSNBC's political dramas. They're superrich conservative/libertarian ideologues who helped bankroll the Tea Party movement. Well, Charles Koch's foundation helps fund the FSU economic department. There was a stir a few years ago that Koch's agreement with the school gave him influence over the hiring of professors and curriculum. That was tidied up, and Thrasher himself said he wouldn't accept donations that came with any promises to influence hiring and curriculum. Still, Koch continues to donate.
However, the board of trustees doesn't have day-to-day control over the school; it votes on whom to elect president and adopts official policy. FSU's board is packed with notable Republicans. Former Speaker of the House Allan Bense serves as chairman. Vice chair Leslie Pantin served on Gov. Jeb Bush's 2004 transition team. Brent W. Sembler serves on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Joseph Gruters is the chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota and is the former campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.
Thrasher Isn't Sure if He Believes in Evolution or Global Warming
These things may be up for debate in politics, but in academics they're pretty much settled science. Sure, we all know there are some Republicans who give vague answers about these topics so as not to upset their base, but even while gunning for the job of president of the university, Thrasher refused to clarify his positions.
Just Two Years Ago, Thrasher Sponsored a Bill That Would Have Made It Illegal for Him to Accept the Job
Thrasher sponsored a bill that would have made it illegal for any legislator to work for a public university while serving and would bar that person from taking jobs at public universities for two years after he or she left public service. That bill died, and it appears Thrasher doesn't want to practice what he once preached.
Speaking of ethics: Thrasher was also fined twice for violating ethics laws while serving in the state house.
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