- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida State University on Tuesday chose powerful state Sen. John Thrasher as its next president despite significant opposition from people on campus who contended he isn’t qualified for the post.

The FSU board voted 11-2 Tuesday to hire Thrasher over three academics, pushing aside objections from FSU faculty who cited his lack of education credentials. Thrasher, a former state House speaker and chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, also drew criticism after he sidestepped questions during a campus forum about climate change and evolution.

But Thrasher’s supporters said the FSU alumnus “bleeds garnet and gold” and that his political connections and clout could help FSU in its quest to move into the ranks of the nation’s top research universities. Thrasher also vowed that he would help the university get more money to boost faculty salaries.

“I think Florida State will be in good hands,” said FSU board chairman Allen Bense and a former House speaker. “I think we have a good leader. Everything that John Thrasher has taken on he’s been successful at.”

The vote, however, was met with immediate protests. Right afterward, students began chanting “FSU is not for sale.”

Gary Tyson, an FSU professor who is the lone faculty member on the university board, said “this is the scary choice. This is not the safe choice.”

The 70-year-old Thrasher graduated from FSU in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in business and later received his law degree from the school. In the Legislature, he helped win approval for the university’s medical school, which opened in 2001. Thrasher also spent four years on FSU’s board. He has never taught, however, working as a lawyer and a lobbyist in addition to politics. Thrasher was also instrumental in helping create the state’s current higher education system. While speaker, he and then-Gov. Jeb Bush drew up a plan on a napkin to dissolve the panel that oversaw state universities.

Thrasher has been a staunch Republican and even during his interviews he said he would not walk away from his “core beliefs.” During his final interview, Thrasher maintained he would reach out to his opponents if selected.

“I respect people who have differences of opinion about myself and my qualifications,” Thrasher said. “All I can say is if I become president of Florida State University I reach out to anybody who wants to sit down and talk about opportunities to advance this university.”

Thrasher is stepping in at a time when the university has come under fire for its handling of star quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston has been involved in a series of off-field incidents in recent months, and he was suspended from last week’s game for making “offensive and vulgar” comments about female anatomy on campus. The university initially only suspended him for a half, but then late Friday switched it to an entire game.

The selection still has to be ratified in November by the Board of Governors. But the statewide panel has never refused to endorse the selection made by a local university board. Still because of that Thrasher said he had no plans to step down from his Senate seat or end his re-election bid until that vote takes place. FSU trustees did vote, however, to ask him to give up his post in the Scott campaign this week. A spokeswoman for Thrasher said he is expected to do that on Wednesday.

Bense said he plans to begin negotiations on a contract. FSU’s previous president made more than $400,000 a year, although he also earned bonuses worth another $556,000 in the last three years.

The other candidates passed over by the FSU board were former West Virginia University Provost Michele Wheatly, Colorado State University System Chancellor Michael Martin and University of Alabama at Birmingham Vice President Richard Marchase.

FSU has been without a president since Eric Barron left in April to take the top post at Penn State University. The process to hire a successor has been bumpy ever since Thrasher emerged as a candidate. Initially FSU planned to interview him ahead of all candidates but that created a backlash and ultimately led to the search being delayed.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press this past summer showed that the consultant first hired to help FSU told the head of the search committee that the university was trying to “concoct a competitive process” that would end with Thrasher’s hiring. Those same emails showed Thrasher reached out directly to top FSU officials about the job and that the former campaign manager of Scott gave advice about the search.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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