Bob Sparks: Thrasher’s critics should reveal their choice for FSU presidency

The audacity of Republican politicians is limitless. Someone wants to be president of a prestigious Florida university and this person has no experience in academia?

Faculty is apoplectic. Students want to be heard. If this man becomes president, the school will lose prestige, grants, and perhaps a few members of the hyper-agitated faculty.

But this guy says he will take advantage of his political skills and contacts to benefit the university. After all, he has some clout in Tallahassee.

We are not talking about State Sen. John Thrasher, one of four finalists to become the next President of Florida State University. Instead, the above recaps the controversy and the issues surrounding Frank Brogan’s selection as President of Florida Atlantic University in 2003.

Brogan faced significant opposition a decade ago, including some consternation about his lack of a doctorate degree. Also, while he had held leadership positions in K-12 education, he had never worked on a college campus.

Some clearly believed the fix was in for Brogan. He was the sitting Lt. Governor and former Education Commissioner. Gov. Jeb Bush had appointed trustees and members of the State University System Board of Governors.

In the end, Brogan was the overwhelming selection by the FAU Board of Trustees in 2003 and was unanimously re-elected in 2009 before becoming Chancellor of the State University System. Not bad for a man deemed unqualified.

Thrasher faces many of the same criticisms launched at Brogan. However, unlike Brogan, Thrasher has no experience as a teacher or administrator.

The presidential search committee asked — and answered in the negative — a question of whether Thrasher would be a viable candidate for a similar position outside the state. Had the same question been asked about Brogan, the answer would have been the same.

The search process has not helped Thrasher. Earlier attempts to forward him as the sole candidate gave critics even more ammunition to use against his candidacy.

Last week, the Florida State Faculty Senate passed a resolution, 39-23, asking the search committee not to forward Thrasher’s name as a candidate. The resolution cites Thrasher’s “lack of qualifications” as the deal breaker.

What are those qualifications? Commitment to academic excellence, good communications, integrity, diversity, dedication to academic freedom, and enhancing graduate programs, are just a few.

“Fundraising skills” is also in the mix along with strengthening “peaks of excellence.” Does Thrasher favor “valleys of excellence?” Having a great athletic department is the last item on the list.

The selection committee will determine if Thrasher meets the criteria. Even if they do, they may feel one or all three of the other contenders can raise money and lead the university better than him.

It is almost comical to hear or read the complaint that John Thrasher is a “polarizing figure.” Just because his opponents choose to coarsen the discussion surrounding his candidacy, that does not make him the polarizer. Go back and read who said what about whom.

This week the four candidates are on campus for forums with administrators, faculty and students. Thrasher was first and was treated very poorly in a faculty forum.

Some infants disguised as graduate assistants actually heckled him from the front row. He may want to thank them later. Their boorish behavior may have actually generated some sympathy for Thrasher.

I know Thrasher a little, but not enough to know if he would be the best choice for president for FSU. I am not certain if he could lead a university as well as Frank Brogan. Most seem to agree Thrasher is a decent man who loves FSU, but that’s about it.

Critics aren’t interested in his time as Speaker of the House. They have a bone to pick with some of his votes and positions as a senator. His two Bronze Stars from Vietnam are of little or no interest.

They have decided he cannot lead a university like Florida State. The search committee, armed with more useful information, will reveal their recommendation next week.

The purpose of this little essay is not to make the case for John Thrasher. I’ll leave that to former FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte and others.

Instead, it is to make a humble request to those with the bullhorns. How about putting them down for a while and listen to Michele Wheatley, Michael Martin and Richard Marchase, the other candidates?

You don’t want Thrasher? Fine. After hearing from the other three, tell the committee who you want. Turn the process into a positive. The faculty members on the search committee, who all oppose Thrasher, made the same request as they voted against the Faculty Senate resolution.

Those of us who care about FSU, even if we attended schools in other states, want the best person for the job. Look back through history. Florida State has an excellent track record when it comes to choosing presidents.

In the end, they will make the right choice.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.      

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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