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John Thrasher named new president of FSU

Florida State's board of trustees vote 11-2 for state senator from St. Augustine

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Politically influential state Sen. John Thrasher was offered the presidency of his alma mater Tuesday, ending a process many critics believe was decided months ago.

The St. Augustine Republican, who is chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, was selected over three finalists with academic backgrounds to replace Eric Barron as president of Florida State University in an 11-2 vote by the school's Board of Trustees.

Barron left in April after accepting the position of president at Penn State University, and many faculty members and students in Tallahassee had been clamoring for his replacement to have similar academic credentials.

But Thrasher, who said earlier Tuesday that selection as FSU president would "be the highlight of my life," got the offer in large part because of his past fund-raising skills.

"I think that everything that John Thrasher has taken on he has been successful at," trustees Chairman Allan Bense, a former state House speaker, said after the meeting. "I know it's a little bit of a cliché to say he loves the university, but he does love the university. And I think he will be successful, and we have to give him the opportunity to be successful."

Thrasher's long-known desire for the job caused the search to be temporarily paused in May. But after an outcry from faculty members and students, the search restarted and resulted in Tuesday's decision.

Trustee Ed Burr, who was the chairman of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said the selection came down to three candidates who have shown they can manage a campus but were untested in raising funds against a candidate who has shown he can get resources the school needs and can hire the right staff to manage the campus.

However, trustee Peggy Rolando, in voting against the choice, expressed concerns that Thrasher fundraising prowess has been over-inflated and that he faces a two-year prohibition on lobbying the Legislature after leaving office. She added that Thrasher could probably be more effective for the school by continuing to work in the Legislature.

"I'm concerned about raising our expectations about a giant pool of money," Rolando said. "If that's your expectation, you're setting him up to fail."

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A contract must still be worked out and the trustee's decision needs the backing of the state university system's Board of Governors, which meets in November.

The school is seeking to complete a $1 billion fundraising campaign, and trustee Joseph Gruters suggested the contract be modeled after an incentive-based agreement the school had with Barron.

In addition to a base salary of $395,000 a year, Barron was offered a bonus of $100,000 for each $100 million in fundraising for the school.

Thrasher, who also is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, released a statement that he was "honored" by the offer, but that he isn't giving up his Northeast Florida Senate seat just yet as steps remain in the hiring process.

"While I am hopeful that the BOG (Board of Governors) will accept the trustees' decision, that final decision will not be known until November," Thrasher said in the statement. "In the meantime, I intend to continue to campaign for re-election to the Senate and will continue to carry out my commitment to the people of my district."

A statement is expected to be issued Wednesday about Thrasher's position with the Scott campaign, according to a spokeswoman for the senator.

Trustee Stefano Cavallaro, the student body president, requested that Thrasher step down from the Scott campaign by 5 p.m. Wednesday as a sign of "good faith" to those on the campus who have expressed concerns about his presidency.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, were quick to praise the school's selection.

"John Thrasher will lead Florida State University with the same consummate skill and commitment to excellence that has propelled him to success at every level of public service," Gaetz said in a prepared statement.

Thrasher, a former House speaker, has been a major supporter of FSU in the Legislature, including helping the university establish a medical school.

He received his undergraduate and law degrees at the school and would later serve four years as chairman of the trustees. Thrasher also headed the search committee that selected T.K. Wetherell as president in 2003 and was nominated for the post this year by former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte.

But Thrasher's candidacy has spurred months of controversy, which continued Tuesday during the trustees' meeting.

One opponent called the search process "sketchy," one labeled Thrasher an "overlord," another said the trustees were announcing support for athletics over academics, and one even threatened, "We will make John Thrasher's life here at Florida State a living hell."

Joshua Mills, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Music, warned that a Thrasher presidency wouldn't be "viable" because he wouldn't "have the respect of faculty and students."

While Thrasher drew support from some members of the school's fraternities and sororities, other students have seen Thrasher as an extension of the politically prominent Koch brothers, whose foundation since 2008 has helped fund the FSU economics department. The billionaire brothers draw distain from some students for their support of conservative endeavors and for what is seen as the foundation's influence over the curriculum and hiring of professors.

But D'Alemberte, noting his liberal political views are dramatically different than Thrasher's, gave an impassioned plea to the trustees Tuesday on Thrasher's behalf while also saying he disagreed with many of the accusations from the students about his friend of nearly 40 years.

"I know that he cares about students," D'Alemberte told the trustees. "I know that he comes from a collegial environment, and he'll be a good president."

Students and faculty members pushed Tuesday for candidate Michele G. Wheatly, who until June had been provost at West Virginia University, saying she could inspire other women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and provide positive attention for the school. Also high on the list of those on campus was Colorado State University System Chancellor Michael V. Martin.

Richard B. Marchase, University of Alabama at Birmingham vice president for research and economic development, was the fourth finalist.

All four candidates were interviewed by the trustees Tuesday before the vote.

During his interview, Thrasher said he'd use the presidency as a "bully pulpit" on behalf of the entire campus, to seek salary increases for faculty and to complete the $1 billion fundraising campaign.

Asked if his conservative political views and personal beliefs would impact funding for research and policy decisions at the school, Thrasher responded, "The bottom line is no."

"I'm not going to abandon my core beliefs, but on the other hand I know this is a marketplace for ideas, it's a marketplace where people ought to come together and share those ideas hopefully in a civil way,'' he said. "And I will try to do that. I'm more than willing to put those things aside and understand that the one focused mission that I have as president of Florida State University is to advance this faculty, its research, its service and its teaching aspects."