By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, September 15, 2014 …… Hundreds of students, faculty and staff came out Monday directing pointed questions to Sen. John Thrasher, an influential political figure who is the lone non-academic finalist for the job of Florida State University president.
During on-campus forums that are part of the presidential selection process, students and faculty often expressed a lack of trust in Thrasher, long considered the front runner for the university job. During his long political career, Thrasher has steered millions of state dollars to the university and helped create the FSU medical school, but he also has recorded numerous votes that have been opposed by teachers and unions.
Thrasher, at one point Monday, threatened to walk out due to heckling.
Some faculty called Thrasher’s responses “vacuous.”
“He’s saying that nothing in the past matters regarding his votes, but he keeps mentioning his (legislative) funding for the medical school,” said Michael Buchler, associate professor of music theory. “He can’t have it both ways.”
Still, the series of forums, while at times testy, were predominantly civil and also included support from faculty and students.
“Talking to people helps. They realize I don’t have horns,” Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, said during a break between groups. “I am who I am, and I think they’re beginning to understand that.”
Thrasher, the first of four finalists to take part in the campus forums this week, spoke of his love for the school and his plans for advocacy if he is offered the presidency by the university’s Board of Trustees next week.
Thrasher, a former House speaker who is chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, also assured faculty there would be no retribution against his alma mater in the upcoming legislative session if he fails to get the presidency.
“Nothing bad is going to happen to Florida State University,” said Thrasher, an avowed FSU “homer” who received his undergraduate and law degrees from the Tallahassee school.
“I think more good can happen if I become president. I mean that in all sincerity and with great humility,” Thrasher continued. “I really believe that we can make a difference, quite frankly, in the public sector and private sector, to make a difference financially for this university.”
Still, at one point Thrasher threatened to walk out due to heckling from a small group, mostly graduate assistant students, seated in the front during the faculty forum, while he was acknowledging a need to learn more about climate change.
“If I’m going to get heckled from the front row, by people laughing and making jokes about it, then I’m not going to stay. I don’t think it’s fair to you and me,” Thrasher said, breaking from his response regarding climate change.
Thrasher later said he “just wanted to get their attention” and that after his comment the individuals behaved.
Thrasher talked to three groups — university staff, faculty and students — before a community reception was held, all in the school’s Augustus B. Turnbull III Florida State Conference Center.
Thrasher is seeking to succeed former President Eric Barron, an academic with a track record in fundraising who was named president of Penn State University in February.
Michele G. Wheatly, who until June had been provost at West Virginia University, will go through the review process on Tuesday.
Colorado State University System Chancellor Michael V. Martin is scheduled for Wednesday.
The fourth finalist, Richard B. Marchase, University of Alabama at Birmingham vice president for research and economic development, is set to appear Friday.
Using feedback from the forums, the university’s 27-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee is scheduled Sept. 22 to make a recommendation to the university’s trustees.
The trustees, who would still have to forward the final choice to the university system’s Board of Governors, are scheduled to meet Sept. 23.
Thrasher faced questions about issues such as how he would increase diversity on campus, his lack of academic credentials, his legislative support for prison privatization, his support of a proposal that would have moved toward splitting the Florida A&M University-FSU College of Engineering and his continued desire for the job despite the student and faculty opposition.
Some of the students see Thrasher as an extension of the politically influential Koch brothers, whose foundation since 2008 has helped fund the FSU economics department.
The billionaire brothers draw distain from some students for their support for conservative endeavors and for what is seen as the foundation’s influence over the curriculum and hiring of professors.
Faculty questioned Thrasher about his support for a bill (HB 115) signed into law this year that allows university direct-support organization boards to meet in private when they discuss donors or potential donors, proposals for research funding or plans for initiating or supporting research.
Thrasher told faculty members that while he voted for the bill, university contributions “should come with no strings attached.”
Sitting in a chair before about 100 members of the FSU staff in the morning, nearly 200 faculty and later about 150 students, Thrasher acknowledged his law degree from the school may not be the academic credentials desired by many of the faculty. But he said there would be no stronger advocate for the school, its faculty and students. More importantly, he indicated that through his extensive legislative and lobbying experience, he would be able to complete the $1 billion fundraising goal set by Barron in 2013.
“I know how to do it, I know how to get things accomplished,” Thrasher said.