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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Editorial: Power politics at FSU

It appears near certain that state Sen. John Thrasher will be selected president of Florida State University.

Few quality applicants are seeking the job because the skids appeared greased for Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican. So the FSU presidential search committee voted Wednesday to interview only Thrasher and decide whether to offer him the job.

The unsavory situation, like the abrupt creation of Florida Polytechnic University, illustrates how power politics — not academic excellence — dominates higher education in Florida.

Thrasher is a gutsy political operative but has no academic experience. His primary qualification is his history of shoveling tax dollars to FSU, his alma mater.

There is no question Thrasher, who has served on FSU’s Board of Trustees, loves the school.

As speaker of the House, he dismantled the Florida Board of Regents, which oversaw the state university system. The reason? It would not approve a medical school at FSU because studies showed it was not necessary and would harm existing medical schools at the University of Florida and University of South Florida.

But Thrasher got rid of the regents and got his medical school, where the building is named after him.

The move completely politicized the university system. Voters, fortunately, undid some of the damage by backing a referendum recreating a higher education oversight body, the Board of Governors.

Still, the bullying reprisal revealed how political might determines higher education policy. Lawmakers frequently lavish programs and tax dollars on their favorite schools, with little regard for students’ needs or fiscal responsibility.

A prime example came a few years ago, when former state Sen. JD Alexander of Polk County orchestrated the establishment of Florida Polytechnic, which had been a branch of USF in the Lakeland area, as the state’s 12th public university.

This came without any academic review or financial justification even as the state was cutting funding for existing universities by $300 million.

Now the state has an unaccredited university in close proximity to the University of South Florida and not far from the University of Florida, both of which already have excellent engineering and science programs. And the University of Central Florida, which also has engineering and science programs, is just down Interstate 4 in Orlando.

Thrasher is a former lobbyist who has been chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and is now chairing Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. He is a shrewd political operator who knows how to get things done in Tallahassee.

But that hardly qualifies one to be a university president.

Indeed, some former politicians have been effective university presidents. Betty Castor, a former state senator and state education commissioner, did a superb job at USF, as did former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan at Florida Atlantic University. But both had backgrounds in education.

Likewise, former FSU President Thomas Kent “T.K.” Wetherell, who served as speaker of the House for two years during a 12-year legislative career, had an extensive education background, including a doctorate in education administration.

Thrasher, who is scheduled to be interviewed by the search committee June 11, is unquestionably passionate about FSU and may prove to be an able administrator and a visionary leader. But his selection would signal the state and the nation that Florida’s higher education is still very much a political game.

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