Eyes on the prize: New leaders at Florida universities
Across Florida, five public universities and a handful of state colleges — along with a number of private schools — installed new presidents over the past year or two.
FSU looks to John Thrasher to help make it a top-25 school.
By Amy Martinez
In May 2014, former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte nominated then-state Sen. John Thrasher to be FSU’s president, pointing to the prominent Republican legislator’s fundraising ability.
In a letter to the Texas executive recruiter who was leading the presidential search, D’Alemberte acknowledged concerns about Thrasher’s lack of academic credentials and even noted that “in ideal times,” FSU should hire an established scholar.
But FSU, like all Florida universities, had “suffered an extraordinary loss of resources in recent years,” D’Alemberte wrote. “Our first priority now is getting that base funding restored, and John Thrasher is the best person to accomplish this.”
Four months later, FSU’s board of trustees chose Thrasher over three academicians, agreeing that as a career lawyer and politician, he was best suited to bring in more money from both the private and public sectors and boost FSU’s national academic standing. There were plenty of precedents for picking a president with legislative experience: D’Alemberte and his successor, T.K. Weatherell, also had served in the Florida House.
Last November, Thrasher had been on the job only 10 days when a gunman opened fire at FSU’s Strozier Library, wounding three people before being shot and killed by police. A visible presence on campus in the days that followed, Thrasher won praise for helping to restore a sense of normalcy to FSU.
He recently spoke with Florida Trend about his early impressions of the job.
How did your transition from a political to academic world go?
“I had familiarity with my staff, most of them, just from spending a lot of time in Tallahassee. So that part of the transition went well. And then literally 10 days into my presidency, we had the shooting on campus, which was an eye-opening event, I guess in many ways. It certainly wasn’t something I had anticipated. But I think we handled it appropriately and did the right thing for students. Certainly, I think we did the right things for those who were injured and have continued to do so.”
Are you satisfied that the faculty and student body have accepted you?
“I feel comfortable with the faculty. I feel comfortable with the students. There’s probably a segment of each out there who maybe would have preferred someone else — I’ll put it that way. But I think we’ve made some inroads. I’ve tried to reach out to as many faculty members as I can. I try to see some students every single day. That’s part of my goal, to meet with students and hear what they have to say about the issues that concern them.”
FSU and UF each received $20 million in “pre-eminence” state funding last year and $15 million the year before. How has FSU spent the money?
“We’ve hired a number of researchers in different areas that we believe are important — energy and brain health and coastal and marine research. We’ve used our resources to maintain our National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is a great asset for Florida State University. The money, basically as I envisioned it when I was in the Legislature, was to increase the kinds of faculty primarily related to the science, technology, engineering and math areas.”
How important are the humanities and liberal arts to FSU?
“We have the No. 1 music school, I believe, in America. We have great theater and other fine arts programs. We still believe strongly that for students who want to come here and major in those areas, they should have every opportunity to do so and receive a quality education.
Conversely, I will tell you that some of the dollars we’ve gotten in the area of pre-eminence we’ve used to hire what we call entrepreneurs-in-residence. Those are individual professors and faculty members who go into these other schools, outside the business school, and primarily give undergraduate students an opportunity to understand aspects of the business culture. Say they want to form a dance studio or create a business teaching music. They have to know fundamentals about business.”
FSU wants to become a top- 25 ranked public university. U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it 43. What is the plan for getting there?
“Resources are a big part of it. It’s not like the Legislature funds us 100%. It’s about 40%. We realize we’ve got to go out and do other things, too, if we’re going to get in the top 25. We started a capital campaign, and it’s a $1-billion campaign. We’re probably 60% there. We’ve given ourselves until 2018 to reach that $1 billion.”
What has surprised you about running a university?
“I wouldn’t say universities are glacial, necessarily, but you do have a number of hoops to jump through before you can get a decision made. I’m trying to break some of that down, to be honest with you. I think we could make decisions a little faster than we have in the past. People understand that’s my style. I certainly want to be informed. But I also don’t want to have an issue go to four, five committees before we make a decision about it.”
John Thrasher, 71
- Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from FSU
- Professional Career: Worked as general counsel for the Florida Medical Association for 20 years and as a partner for the Southern Strategy Group lobbying firm from 2001 to 2009
- Political Career: Became a state representative in 1992 and was House Speaker from 1998-2000; held a northeast Florida Senate seat from 2009-14; chaired the Republican Party of Florida in 2010; chaired Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign before stepping down last September to become FSU president
- Military Service: Served in the U. S. Army from 1966-70