Florida’s two pre-eminent universities have new presidents who face the task of improving the schools’ national standing.
The state university system’s Board of Governors on Thursday unanimously approved the appointments of Cornell University Provost Kent Fuchs to head the University of Florida and state Sen. John Thrasher to be the next president of his alma mater, Florida State University.
“I have no doubt both universities will thrive under these leaders,” university system Chancellor Marshall Criser said.
Thrasher is succeeding Eric Barron, who left earlier this year to become president of Penn State University. Fuchs will take over from outgoing UF President Bernie Machen, who is retiring in December after 10 years.
The governors held the confirmation hearing while meeting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Thrasher, a former House speaker who has long been an influential player in the Legislature, is expected soon to submit his resignation from the Senate. A new $430,000-a-year contract calls for him to take the FSU helm on Monday.
His move will lead to a special election in Northeast Florida’s Senate District 6 and possibly could lead to a special election in the House.
Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who has long desired the FSU job, easily defeated two challengers in Tuesday’s election in his Senate district, receiving 58 percent of the vote. Afterward he released a statement that he was “committed to helping our district and Republican Party find a candidate who is uniquely qualified to serve the people of Northeast Florida.”
His resignation is expected to set off a scramble in the district that includes Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties and part of Volusia County.
State Rep. Ronald “Doc” Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, has said he intends to run for the Senate seat after Thrasher exits. Renuart, who has set up a Facebook page called “Doc Renuart for FL Senate,” is one of two Republicans who have opened campaign accounts for the Senate seat in 2018.
Also widely believed to be considering a run for Thrasher’s seat is Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton. He is the only candidate with an open campaign account for the House District 24 seat that covers Flagler and parts of St. Johns and Volusia counties.
Fuchs, pronounced Fox, is expected to move into the President’s House at the UF after the start of the new year, with a contract making him the highest paid president in the state university system. As the 12th UF president, Fuchs is set to have a base salary starting at $860,000 a year.
Board of Governors Chairman Morteza “Mori” Hosseini received commitments from Thrasher and Fuchs that they would do their best to ensure student safety, keep tuition as low as possible, and to work with other state university presidents to improve the overall system.
Fuchs, who said he intends to be visible on campus and through social media, said the challenge of increasing the school’s national profile is part of what attracted him to Gainesville.
Fuchs is coming from a private Ivy League school that is ranked 15th nationally by U.S. News & World Report. He has been credited with helping Cornell raise $1 billion. Fuchs said a top-10 position can be reached at UF, but it will take a number of years.
“While I wouldn’t want this in my contract … it’s an achievable goal,” he told the board.
The University of Florida was most recently ranked 48th among national universities, and 14th among public schools. Florida State University stands 95th nationally and at 43rd in the public-school list in the magazine’s annual rankings.
Thrasher’s selection was contentious as it played out across the summer in Tallahassee. But Thrasher, who was Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign chairman when the search began, was the front-runner for the job throughout the process.
Board of Governors member Dean Colson, who in June said the school’s presidential search “damaged the national reputation” of FSU, maintained his criticism of the process Thursday. Yet, Colson added that he expects Thrasher to be a “very good president.”
The process was temporarily halted in May with the intention of considering only Thrasher after a consultant said the politician’s desire for the job was keeping others from applying. After a new consultant was brought on board, the search was restarted.
Board of Governors member Ed Morton, also a member of the FSU presidential search committee, said Thursday the process was fair and worked as it should.
Thrasher said since being selected for the job on Sept. 23, he has spent 14 days on campus, meeting with administration members, faculty and students.
“I have not been before the full Faculty Senate yet, but I look forward to doing that,” Thrasher said.
The Faculty Senate issued a rare vote of no-confidence against the initial search consultant, while members questioned Thrasher’s credentials throughout the selection process.
Thrasher acknowledged he may have had a hand in state schools not being as adequately funded the last few years as some board members would want. But, he added, that in order to achieve higher standards at the university he wants to quickly prepare the school for the legislative session, focus on the school’s ongoing $1 billion capital campaign and look into increasing faculty pay.
“If we’re going to get in the top 25, we’ve got to be realistic about the salaries we pay,” Thrasher said.
He noted he has undertaken a crash course in Title IX, under which schools are required by law to investigate alleged sex crimes, whether law enforcement investigates them or not.
When asked about student athletes, Thrasher agreed that academic metrics should be included in coach’s contracts.
“We have an issue, dealing with some of our athletes in terms of graduation and the percentage that are not graduating,” Thrasher said. “I think it’s come up, but I think we can do a lot better.”
About 50 FSU students protested Thrasher’s appointment at the Tallahassee campus while the Board of Governors met in Boca Raton.
The students view Thrasher as an extension of the politically influential Koch brothers, whose foundation since 2008 has helped fund the FSU economics department.
“Our private education is being sold to private donors, and it’s becoming a serious problem that is infringing upon our academic freedom,” said Sydney Norris, a sophomore majoring in theater and women’s studies who is a member of the Progress Coalition.