Daniel Tilson: FSU president should be special for right reasons

University presidents should be special, but for the right reasons. This came to mind as Florida State University clumsily lurched along the road to picking a new president.

Eric Barron resigned somewhat suddenly in early April, to take the presidency at Penn State. With a long pre-FSU faculty/administration history there, this was a “dream” move for Barron, and the FSU Board of Trustees wasn’t going to stand in his way. But then they couldn’t get out of their own way and tripped up badly in searching for his successor.

Let me add, this is a little personal. My 19-year-old stepdaughter just finished her freshman year at FSU. Loves it. So do her Mom, Dad, stepmother and me. Sure, we love our national champion Seminoles, and the campus. But we also loved Barron’s focus on educational life at the university.

Insiders say he did well raising the academic profile and bringing a faculty member’s perspective to the job. Former Penn State colleagues call him an academics-first guy, who rose from instructor to dean using a “student-centered” approach.

Those characteristics are what makes a university president special, and help make the school special — particularly a public one that so many working families count on to be competitive with private-sector counterparts.

The FSU Board of Trustees and its advisory search committee seemed to “get that” too … briefly.

They originally posted the job in trade publications as requiring, among other qualities, “strong academic credentials.” Sensible, huh?

FSU faculty, students, parents and others were encouraged. There was anticipation of a rigorous, transparent, inclusive search process. How else to find someone with academic creds like Barron’s?

Then, an obstacle arose on the path to transparency and good sense. His name is John Thrasher, 70-year-old wealthy, conservative Republican insider; former party chairman, currently state senator … and avid FSU alumni booster.

“Word got out” he was interested in the presidency of the school he’s successfully steered and given all kinds of big money to for years. And then the rules of the search game suddenly changed.

Embarrassingly enough, the search committee’s job posting was revised. Remember the “strong academic credentials” requirement? Fuhgeddaboudit. Gone. That was replaced with …“loyalty to Florida State.”

Talk about special.

That done, Thrasher formally applied for the job, was fast-tracked for an interview, and the search process ceased. If it seemed to some that the fix was in, it’s because the fix was in.

Mind you, the FSU Board of Trustees chairman is none other than rich conservative Republican businessman, 10-year veteran of the Florida Legislature, Thrasher’s pal and former colleague, Allan Bense.

Now, nobody should minimize the role Thrasher has played in bringing in the bacon for FSU. You don’t end up with your name on the College of Medicine building just for being a healthy 70-year-old.

But he brings baggage, too, from ethics violations in office, to alliance with ethically challenged Gov. Rick Scott, to a history of anti-middle class legislating and lobbying …to a lack of any (forget “strong”) substantive academic credentials.

He’s a fundraiser, not an academic. FSU still needs his help moving forward … but not as president.

Thank goodness, after the FSU community cried, “Foul!” Thrasher’s coronation, uh … interview, was called off. Other strong candidates have stepped forward, including Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston, and state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda.

It’s a relief the FSU Board reconsidered its “fix is in” approach, now claiming it will allow the candidatesearch to evolve before conducting any interviews.” But it’s a cautionary relief, one that should be tempered with ongoing watchfulness and involvement by all stakeholders in the process.

FSU deserves a special president.

Daniel Tilson has a Boca Raton-based communications firm called Full Cup Media, specializing in online video and written content for non-profits, political candidates and organizations, and small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Daniel Tilson


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