A new search firm will be brought in to help Florida State University find its next president, as students and faculty clamor for more say in the muddled process.
The university's Presidential Search Advisory Committee agreed Wednesday to have Chairman Ed Burr negotiate a contract with Monterey Park, Calif.-based Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates as the search shifts away from a narrow look at politically influential Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.
Thrasher, however, remains widely considered as the front-runner for the presidency.
The committee is expected to meet again in the next couple of weeks to re-establish credentials for applicants and to set a timeline to hire a new president, who will be counted on to direct fundraising and to guide the school toward a national top-25 ranking for academics and research.
The committee action came two days after Dallas-based consultant William "Bill" Funk resigned.
Burr, addressing the committee by phone Wednesday, said Funk was concerned the focus of the search had turned to him, rather than the process or candidates.
"I regret that that happened, but we have to look at where we are today," Burr said. "Our mission has been very clear from the beginning, we have stated it many times, it's to be the most open, thorough and honest search, to find the very best president we can."
Funk, who had recommended committee members pause the search so they could interview Thrasher for the job, received a rare vote of no confidence from the Faculty Senate last week.
Thrasher, who holds bachelor's and law degrees from the university, is former House speaker who is chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign. He has been a major support of FSU in the Legislature, including helping the university establish a medical school.
After the committee agreed May 21 to bring in Thrasher to interview for the job, State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston asked to be considered for the position.
Fourteen others had applied as of Wednesday.
Alumni, students and faculty said Wednesday the search is receiving national attention and the words they hear include "embarrassment" and "tumultuous."
"It risks resembling a middle-school playground squabble," Matthew Lata, a professor in the FSU College of Music, told the committee.
Committee member Eric Walker, chairman of the FSU English Department, said after the meeting that bringing in a new search firm and reopening the process should improve the public perception of the search. However, he indicated Thrasher's desire for the job will continue to make potential applicants pause.
"I think there are still some hurdles and challenges in defining the pool," Walker said.
Committee member Al Lawson, a former state lawmaker who has a master's degree from FSU, hopes the turmoil around the search won't keep other qualified applicants away.
"You really hope that people who are looking at this process around America won't be so reluctant and not apply because they see us being very controversial," Lawson said after the meeting.
Lawson said he was ready to nominate FSU Provost Garnett Stokes, who is serving as interim president, for the position Wednesday, while he continues to rate Thrasher highly for the job.
Stokes has been serving as the interim since April, when Eric Barron left for Penn State University.
Faculty and students implored the committee for additional representation on the search panel and to require that applicants have a strong academic background.