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Adam Weinstein: Presidential search is latest battle for free-market lobbyists trying to transform FSU

The state of Florida and one of its flagship universities are about to embark on an exciting new experiment: What happens when you turn an institution of higher learning into an annex of the Legislature and lobbyists?

That’s about the only conclusion I can come to when I look at the presidential search process — and the encroachment of politics and business into student life — at Florida State University, my alma mater.

John Thrasher — conservative state senator, former state Republican Party chairman, and current Rick Scott re-election campaign chair — is likely to be the next president of FSU. Sure, there’s an “open” search with numerous candidates, which the search committee quickly instituted after students and workers expressed outrage over Thrasher’s sudden emergence from an opaque process, run by a lot of his old friends, as an unopposed frontrunner.

The thing is, he’s probably still getting the job. All the “open” process has done is give the committee political cover to go with their first choice, while saying they picked the best man for the job.

Just how deep does the political tit-for-tat go in this process? Here’s a small sample: The search is run by Republican ex-House speaker and Thrasher friend Allan Bense, who was granted his position as FSU Trustees chairman by Gov. Rick Scott — the guy Thrasher’s trying to get re-elected.

To assist him on the search committee, Bense tapped Republican stalwart Kathryn Ballard, whose husband is a GOP fundraiser and enjoys a cozy camaraderie with Thrasher. The committee also includes: Delores Spearman, who made the maximum campaign contribution to Thrasher in 2009 and whose husband is also a powerful Republican lobbyist; Drew Weatherford, brother of the current House speaker and another Thrasher friend; and Jimmy Patronis, a former GOP legislator who, along with Thrasher, has worked closely with lobbyists for the billionaire conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch.

In fact, this whole operation could represent a big win for the Koch Brothers. Bense heads the James Madison Institute, a conservative think-tank in Tallahassee bankrolled by Koch interests. JMI helped broker a deal a few years back to buy the Koch Brothers a couple of FSU professors — literally. The Kochs gave FSU $1.5 million to let them pick two economics professors who would sing the praises of their “free enterprise” philosophy to students. Today, Koch’s bagmen give nearly $300,000 a year to Florida State — their largest donation to all but one other university in the country.

The purchase of political influence at Florida State by monied conservatives has been ratcheting up for years. Students get job counseling at a career center named after disgraced CEO Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap — named one of America’s “Top 10 Worst Bosses” by Time magazine — and they register for classes at the Devoe Moore Center, named for a local Tea Party millionaire who also lends his name to another politically outspoken FSU “free-market” think tank.

And of course, there’s the “free enterprise distinguished lecture series,” bankrolled by the CEO of BB&T Bank, who not only gives one of the lectures himself, but funds an FSU program that requires enrollees to read his favorite book – “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto.

Imagine if these guys’ best friend in government became president of Florida State University. That’s what they’d get in John Thrasher.

Thrasher’s critics note that he doesn’t have a doctoral degree or a lot of experience inside higher education, and so he doesn’t appreciate what much of the university community does. But he’s got something better than a Ph.D: an old friend, who also doesn’t have a doctorate, in charge of academics at the school. Florida State University’s vice president for academic affairs, Steve MacNamara, used to be Thrasher’s chief of staff in the House.

In fact, MacNamara just returned from a dubious stint as Scott’s chief of staff, resigning after questions arose about how his friends got state contracts while he was in the Florida Senate.  Since leaving for his job at FSU, MacNamara has secretly messaged the governor on Thrasher’s behalf — possibly in violation of state sunshine laws.

When Thrasher became the frontrunner for the FSU presidency and critics argued that he hadn’t even submitted a resumé, he submitted one that had been apparently edited and saved on MacNamara’s computer. MacNamara says he’s never lobbied the presidential search committee on Thrasher’s behalf, but given his penchant for secret messages, is he credible?

I don’t question whether Thrasher and his backers on the selection committee love FSU, or at least parts of it — like the career center, the economics department, and Doak Campbell Stadium. They’re mostly alums, like me.

But their knowledge of academia’s potential is limited and their interests are narrow. Thrasher’s budget-obsessive policies have forced public educational institutions like FSU to cast about for private capital … and his philosophical fellow travelers and financial friends have rushed to fill the gap. Left unchecked, this cycle would turn a world-renowned university into a finishing school for bean-counting, GOP lever-pulling middle managers.

Universities need money and political support. But money and politics are not what universities are about. It seems to me that a good prerequisite for running an education institution like FSU is to have lived a life that was about education first, and money and politics second.

But this is Tallahassee, not Neverland. Money and politics usually win. Soon enough, that may be the only lesson that Florida college students learn.

Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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