Powerful Sen. John Thrasher's desire to be the next president of Florida State University has caused a search committee to "pause" the process so it can interview him for the position.
Search consultant Bill Funk told committee members on Wednesday that the "irregular" step is needed because the "long shadow" of the St. Augustine Republican is keeping other qualified candidates from wanting to apply for the job.
"We're not endorsing John for the role," said Funk, founder and president of Dallas-based consulting firm R. William Funk & Associates. "But we are saying that John is casting a long shadow. It's limiting our opportunity to put together the kind of pool that this committee and that this university deserves."
The action, approved in a 15-9 committee vote, gives Thrasher an inside track for the job, which was vacated April 2 when Eric Barron left for the same post at Penn State University.
FSU Provost Garnett Stokes has been serving as the institution's interim president.
The university's board of trustees will get an up or down recommendation from the committee some time after the Thrasher interview, which is set for June 11.
Before the recommendation is given, Thrasher would also be required to take part in additional interviews with student and faculty groups that have indicated more opposition to his possible selection.
Search committee member and board of trustees chairman Allan Bense said the process isn't "a done deal."
Bense, who spoke highly of hiring a president who can raise money, noted that Florida Atlantic University trustees in January rejected former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and current Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater when selecting a new president.
"Everyone thought it was a done deal, one of those two folks was going to get it," Bense, a former state House speaker, said of the Florida Atlantic decision. "Now just because we're going to vet John Thrasher that doesn't mean he isn't going to stand a rigorous test."
Thrasher, 70, has long been an influential figure in state politics and serves as chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign. He served as House speaker from 1998 to 2000 and currently is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
A 1965 graduate of FSU who also later received his law degree from the university, Thrasher has helped funnel millions of dollars in state money to the Tallahassee campus. Among other things, he played a key role in establishing the university's medical school.
The decision to interview Thrasher quickly drew opposition from students and faculty. Several claimed Thrasher has "hijacked" the process by covertly maneuvering for the post. Search committee members had said in February the selection would weigh more on academic credentials than political connections.
Jennifer Proffitt, president of the FSU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, expected the process would lean toward Thrasher, but said the action Wednesday was more "blatant" than she anticipated.
"I think this meeting effectively shut down anyone who would have applied," Proffitt said.
Regina Joseph, vice president of the FSU Dream Defenders, said student opposition also stems from the anticipated negative image the campus will receive because, "This right-wing politician supports big business, and the fact that he supports the three-strikes (sentencing) law and various other laws that we feel are harmful to black and brown people."
None of the student or faculty representatives on the search committee voted in support of the motion to interview Thrasher.
If Thrasher fails to get the search committee recommendation, the search process would restart, Funk said.
Funk based his recommendation in part on the recent decision by the College of Charleston to hire South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as its next president.
"I've talked to some of the individual candidates in that search and they felt like they were exploited and used and they don't have very good feelings right now about the College of Charleston," Funk said.
And when those same individuals were asked about applying for the FSU job, many expressed similar concerns, as their Florida contacts told them the job was going to Thrasher, Funk said.
Thrasher has yet to submit a resume, but Funk said the lawmaker is interested in the job and intends to apply.
Thrasher has also received a number of letters of recommendation for the post, including one from former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte.
In the letter, D'Alemberte noted Thrasher's involvement in opening the FSU medical school and argued that the ability to raise money should also be considered a key factor in the selection due to a loss of resources at state schools in recent years.