TALLAHASSEE — Florida State University is trying to jump-start its tumultuous search for a new president, but top officials have already been warned that the process could be viewed as a “sham” because of the candidacy of powerful state Sen. John Thrasher, who is seen as the front-runner.
Late last month, FSU officials agreed to revamp the search and wait until September to find a replacement for Eric Barron, who abruptly left FSU to take the top position at Penn State University.
But emails obtained by The Associated Press show 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.” Those same emails show that Thrasher has reached out directly to top FSU officials and that the former campaign manager of Gov. Rick Scott has given advice about the search.
Bill Funk, the consultant who resigned in early June after FSU’s faculty questioned his work, told trustee Ed Burr that FSU would not be able to attract viable candidates as long as the 70-year-old Thrasher remained a candidate for the job.
Thrasher, an alumnus of FSU, lacks academic credentials but is a former House speaker and current chairman of Scott’s re-election campaign. Thrasher’s candidacy has emerged at the same time that rival University of Florida is searching for a new leader, but it wants someone with academic credentials.
It was Funk who initially suggested FSU interview Thrasher first before considering other candidates. But FSU officials dropped that plan after other candidates, including state Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston, applied for the post. The decision to designate Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, as the main candidate created a backlash among some faculty and students. Now FSU is accepting applications until early September before coming up with at least three candidates for the FSU board to consider.
Two days before Polston applied, however, Thrasher himself forwarded to a top FSU official an email from an FSU professor who complained Thrasher’s supporters pushed ahead too quickly.
Thrasher told the professor he had talked to Burr, a Jacksonville businessman, and that he had agreed that the search should be broadened. Thrasher said Burr had discouraged him from writing a letter to suggest widening the search due to “the concern that some folks had suggested that I was manipulating the process.”
Funk quickly fired off a response to Burr and another top FSU official.
“The best candidates will not come into the pool until John’s candidacy is resolved – so who are you going to interview?” Funk wrote to Burr on May 29. “It is my strongly held view that the opportunity for any real competitive process involving John has long passed. To concoct a ‘competitive process’ from this truly weak field of active candidates would now be a sham ... and would be roundly seen as such.”
Some of the other emails bolster that view. At least one high-ranking official from the University of Maryland dropped out of consideration amid the tumult.
Funk in an email last week said it would be inappropriate to comment since his firm was no longer involved.
Burr, however, maintained that after talks with the school’s new search consultant he remains optimistic that FSU will be able to attract traditional candidates for the job.
“I will run what I believe to be an honest, complete and thorough process in deciding the next best president of Florida State University,” Burr said.
Burr also maintained that no one is pressuring him to hand over the job to Thrasher. Burr’s emails show that he has consulted Susie Wiles about the FSU presidency. Wiles, a fixture in Jacksonville political circles, is friends with Thrasher, Burr and Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff. Wiles was the campaign manager for Scott in 2010.
“There never been anyone that has called me, or told me we need to hire Sen. Thrasher as the next president,” Burr said.