Influential St. Augustine Republican Sen. John Thrasher is easily getting more backing for president of Florida State University — in terms of letters of support — than any other applicant.
Thrasher, widely considered the front-runner for the position, has received 10 letters of support, and two in opposition, since the search for a new president has been underway.
None of the other 15 applicants — including Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston and state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee — has had more than a single outside recommendation submitted to the search committee. Polston announced his interest in the job Saturday.
“There are several tough decisions facing the next president, and I don’t think bringing in another academician is the best thing for FSU,” wrote attorney and former Republican lawmaker Ron Richmond, who noted he has been involved with the school since heading to the campus from Indiana in 1959 to play basketball. “We need someone from the political and business community to face and deal with those difficult decisions. John Thrasher is that man.”
The school has been without a permanent president since Eric Barron left for the presidency at Penn State University on April 2.
Student and faculty groups have pushed for the replacement to have similar academic credentials as Barron, an FSU graduate whose career includes being a professor of geosciences and director of an environmental institute.
However, Thrasher is receiving support from Republicans and some Democrats, such as former state lawmaker Steve Geller, who served in the House and Senate from 1988 through 2008.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, wrote that Thrasher would be an “unconventional president” and described leading a university as being similar to political leadership.
“He has devoted his professional life to public service and the law,” Gaetz said of Thrasher. “But if that were a disqualifier, then America’s greatest public university, the University of Virginia, could not have been founded and managed by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. And, arguably, FSU’s strongest position ever was reached under President Sandy D’Alemberte and President T.K. Wetherell, who both made their bones in public service, lawmaking and, famously in the case of President D’Alemberte, lawyering.”
Thrasher served in the House from 1992 to 2000, the final two years as speaker. He is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and also is chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign.
Thrasher was nominated for the position by D’Alemberte, a Democrat who was president of the university from 1994 to 2003.
However, Thrasher also has detractors, including faculty members and students.
Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor, a Democrat, sent a letter to the committee, saying Thrasher’s “conservative politics will ignite a combustible, explosive and polarizing impact for students at Florida State and for other stakeholders across Leon County.”
“You have an opportunity to build upon the legacy of Eric Barron whose leadership style and approach to stakeholders of our community was respected,” Proctor wrote. “The choice of John Thrasher does not build on this legacy. Instead, this choice would sink Florida State University into an era of backwardness, good ole boyness and lost respect as a meaningful center of higher education.”
The university’s presidential search committee voted 15-9 on May 21 to interview only Thrasher during a June 11 meeting. But Ed Burr, chairman of the committee, announced Tuesday that due to an outpouring of interest in the position he’s recommending a delay in the planned exclusive interview with Thrasher.
Only two other letters of recommendation have been filed for applicants.
Attorney Ralph DeMeo, who has been an adjunct faculty member at Tallahassee Community College, where Rehwinkel Vasilinda has taught since 1989, praised her dedication to academics and students.
“She has shown her deep commitment to faculty, students, and state employees, which qualities will serve her well as president,” DeMeo wrote.