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The Politicization of Higher Education, Florida-Style

by Jennifer M. Proffitt, Ph.D.

On February 14, 2014, I received a text from a close friend at Penn State that included a link to a story published on the website, Onward State, announcing that Florida State University President Eric Barron would become the next president of Penn State University. As a professor and union president at Florida State University, this breaking news caught me off guard, but I wasn't really surprised by his move. Surely President Barron was tired of playing Florida higher education politics, in which funding for higher education is a moving target and the rules of the game are constantly changing.

As states across the nation slash education budgets, higher education institutions have become increasingly politicized, doing what they can to get a piece of a smaller state budget pie and to survive numerous iterations of "accountability." (In Florida, performance-based funding is the new game in town that takes money from allegedly "low performing" state schools and reallocates the money to those that meet more of the politically contrived metrics). It was said that the new president would need to obtain more money for the university from the Florida Legislature, and who better to accomplish that than a legislator?

One of the most powerful Republican politicians in Florida history, state Senator John Thrasher was quickly rumored to be at the top of a very short list of one for the job. Thrasher, a former state Speaker of the House, A-list corporate lobbyist, former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, and current co-chairman of tea-party favorite Governor Rick Scott's re-election campaign, is a FSU alumnus known for his love of his alma mater and for pushing money toward FSU, including money for a new medical school that bears his name. Thrasher would not be the first politician to attempt to become president of a university or even president of Florida State University. But the blatant cronyism and intense politicking demonstrated in our presidential search so far illustrate the clear differences between the expectations of politics and those of academia. And Thrasher's bid for FSU presidency leads us back to the creation of FSU's medical school in 2000.

As noted in a May 2014 Tampa Tribune editorial, when Thrasher was Speaker of the House, he dismantled the Florida Board of Regents because "it would not approve a medical school at FSU because studies showed it was unnecessary and would harm existing medial schools at the University of Florida and University of South Florida." Thrasher, in partnership with then-Governor Jeb Bush, pushed legislation that actually changed Florida's Constitution to eliminate the statewide Board of Regents, replacing it with individual Boards of Trustees at each university, trustees appointed by the Governor, and a Board of Governors to oversee the system. After the fall of the Board of Regents, Thrasher "got his medical school, where the building is named after him." This new system was widely reported as being drafted on a cocktail napkin by Bush and Thrasher. As the Tribune editorial states,"The move completely politicized the university system." Thrasher later became chair of FSU's Board of Trustees during the presidency of another politican-turned-FSU-president, Sandy D'Alemberte. Interestingly, Thrasher was nominated for the FSU presidency by none other than D'Alemberte.

Academics need not apply

After Barron announced his departure from FSU, the media and other politicians named Thrasher as the front-runner for the president position. The first order of business for the FSU Board of Trustees (BOT) was the creation of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC) by BOT Chair Allan Bense, who was also a former Speaker of the House. Bense and Thrasher are both North Florida politicians, both former Speakers of the House, and both FSU BOT chairs. The assembled PSAC is a 27-person committee that includes just four faculty members. It also includes former and current politicians, lobbyists, and businesspeople. At its first meeting in March, the PSAC interviewed three search firms, including Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc., a women-owned firm headquartered in Miramar Beach, Florida; Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a woman- and minority-owned firm with main offices in Philadelphia, PA, and Monterey Park, CA; and R. William Funk & Associates, owned by R. William "Bill" Funk and headquartered in Dallas, Texas. During his interview, Funk made note of his record recruiting non-traditional candidates (i.e., politicians) and mentioned at least twice that his firm recruited Mitch Daniels, former Governor of Indiana, to be president at Purdue University, a point that struck me as significant in light of the rumors regarding Thrasher's interest in the position. Funk & Associates was also the search firm that "recruited" politican T. K. Wetherell as FSU's president in 2002. After some discussion, the PSAC unanimously selected Funk & Associates. The make-up of the PSAC and the hiring of Funk's firm were our first hints that the fix was in.

A few weeks later, various university constituencies, including faculty, staff, and students, met with Funk to discuss what they's like to see in the next president. Faculty members made it clear during the faculty forum (held on a Thursday at mid-morning, possibly the worst time for faculty to attend a meeting) that FSU needs a president who is an academician and can work with students, faculty, staff, alumni, the community, and the Legislature, not a divisive politician with no experience in higher education as a teacher, researcher, or leader. Given our comments, we expected to see 'distinguished academic with higher education experience' in the job description, so we were dismayed at the next PSAC meeting, held in April, when we saw that academic credentials were absent from the job description presented by Funk. Funk explained that while the need for an academic is a strong point, he did not want to eliminate anyone from applying because the committee needs to consider leaders from all walks of life. This was our next hint that the fix really was in. The faculty members on the PSAC pushed for academic credentials to be included, and the committee did eventually agree to add distinguished academic credentials, but this criterion did not appear in the job ad Funk placed in the Chronicle.

The Chronicle ad, published May 5 online and May 9 in print, did not include academic credentials as one of the ten "characteristics/attributes integral to the role of President," a list presumably developed by "the University community and Trustees," despite the fact that this was not the same criteria list approved by the search advisory committee at its previous meeting. It did, however, list loyalty to Florida State University as one of the top ten criteria. This provincialism was another clear sign that the fix was in. How many qualified candidates, nationally or internationally, would have a priori "loyalty to Florida State University?" Who would apply for a position that lists loyalty to the university among its most important criteria? A politician with strong ties to FSU would, but likely not a qualified candidate with strong academic credentials and higher education leadership experience who hadn't necessarily ever stepped foot on the FSU campus. The ad also lacked a deadline, which is essential in a "Sunshine" state like Florida, where the best candidates tend to apply at the last minute because they know their application and information will be made public under state law.

Less than two weeks later, the PSAC met again. In a move that outraged many but surprised few, search consultant Funk advised the committee to vet only Senator John Thrasher as a candidate for the position. This, he argued, would allow for a more level playing field--if the committee votes for him to be president, the search would be over; if the committee votes no, then other candidates may apply. As one of the faculty members on the search committee stated, to interview one candidate is "highly irregular." And it clearly demonstrated Florida political cronyism as the motion to interview Thrasher was made by a former President of the Senate, seconded by a former state senator and current FSU lobbyist, and supported in debate by Bense, former Speaker of the House. Remember that it was a former House member and former FSU president who nominated Thrasher in a letter touted in the press the day before this meeting.

This is Florida politics, pure and simple. It was ludicrous to have the search firm and PSAC chair—a Jacksonville businessman (like Thrasher) and BOT member—say that Thrasher was the only viable candidate because no one else would apply (even though eleven nameless people had in fact applied), after only advertising a highly problematic ad for two weeks, and with no deadline for application. And to top it all off, Thrasher had not even submitted an application. Yes, no application. This recommendation to interview only Thrasher was entirely based on a nomination, not on the merits of the candidate. The motion passed 15-9, with all four faculty members on the committee along with the three students, the lone dean, and the lone Board of Governors' representative voting "no" and despite each of the public commenters urging the PSAC to vote no.

The fight for transparency

In the weeks that followed, the faculty union, United Faculty of Florida-Florida State University chapter, organized to fight for an open, fair, and transparent search process. We talked to the press, created a petition that was signed by more than 1,400 people, contacted decision-makers on the PSAC and the BOT (which actually makes the final decision—note that PSAC even has the word "advisory" in its title), and arranged a meeting of the faculty to discuss the faculty response to interviewing just one political candidate. In addition, the Faculty Senate steering committee called an emergency meeting to be held on June 4. With all of this pressure, as well as subsequent applications submitted by a Florida House representative and a Florida Supreme Court justice, the PSAC chair sent a note to the FSU community on June 3 stating that the interview with Thrasher, scheduled for the next PSAC meeting on June 11, would be postponed and the search re-opened. The Faculty Senate still met the next day and passed a vote of no confidence in the search consultant. Days later, Funk resigned.

At the June 11 meeting, which was supposed to be Thrasher's interview, the PSAC voted to hire a new search firm, Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, one of the three firms interviewed at that first PSAC meeting. In the weeks that followed, the PSAC decided on a hard deadline and a new position profile. It also agreed upon an accelerated schedule—the applications are due September 2 and the finalists' names will be forwarded to the BOT on September 22. The BOT will make a final decision on September 23 after interviewing the finalists that morning, hours before its 2 p.m. meeting.

While the search appears to be re-opened, Thrasher remains the front-runner, and the same people who voted to interview only Thrasher remain on the PSAC, which also includes three of the thirteen FSU BOT members (and these BOT members were appointed by the Governor, whose election campaign Thrasher is co-chairing).

The politicization of our universities seriously challenges the mission of higher education as politics, economics, and cronyism trump the promise of democratic deliberation, free inquiry, and faculty governance. It is up to faculty to fight the political takeover of our institutions, and faculty unions in particular have an important role to play in this struggle.

For more information about the FSU search and calls to action regarding the search, please see my blog, presidentsandpolitics.blogspot.com.