The intrigue surrounds whether or not state Sen. John Thrasher, a former House speaker and current chairman of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, is going to wind up with the job. Thrasher initially had the inside track for the position after a contentious narrow vote to make him the main frontrunner. But then Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston jumped into the fray and that triggered a whole series of events leading up a decision this week to revamp the entire search process. More on that here.
The idea that a Florida university would consider a politician is certainly not new. It reflects the reality that Florida's university system is built on a financial structure that is highly dependent on the good will of the Florida Legislature and the governor. Additionally, the job of president pays relatively well, can boost one's pension plan tremendously, and has a level of prestige and responsibility that is better than many political posts.
There's a long line of political figures who have led universities - whether it was former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan at Florida Atlantic University, former House Speaker T.K. Wetherell at FSU and Education Commissioner Betty Castor at the University of South Florida. And it's true that some of those picks drew criticism over whether the candidates had the academic credentials for the post.
But the lingering question for FSU's search is whether the entire process so far is stacked in such a way that Thrasher is inevitably the person who gets the job.
Students and faculty who have protested the search have been critical of their level of participation in the search.
Allan Bense, the former House speaker and father-in-law of current House speaker Will Weatherford , nominated a 27-member committee (which was approved by the FSU Board of Trustees) that has four faculty members, three students and four people who work for the university. Contrast that with the University of Florida presidential search which on its 17-member panel has a majority with direct ties to the school: Three faculty members, two deans, three university vice presidents, one athletics administrator and one student.
Many of the other members on the FSU search committee have substantial ties to Tallahassee's politically-charged environment. That's not to say they came in with the sole purpose of picking Thrasher, but they are people who are acutely aware of the heavy role that the Legislature plays and may consider that important to FSU's future success.
That list includes Bense himself, as well as Kathryn Ballard, a trustee and husband to powerhouse lobbyist and GOP fundraiser Brian Ballard. There's also former Senate President John McKay, current state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, Delores Spearman, the wife of another big-time lobbyist Guy Spearman, Drew Weatherford, former FSU quarterback turned lobbyist and brother of the current House speaker, and Al Lawson, a former state legislator turned lobbyist.
It's worth noting that two of those members present at this week's meeting _ Weatherford and Lawson _ said they had not asked to serve on the search committee ahead of time.
"I read it in the newspaper just like everybody else,'' said Lawson, who this spring had a lobbying contract worth at least $20,000 with the FSU Board of Trustees headed by Bense. (Lawson for his part doesn't believe this constitutes a conflict on his part to serve on the search committee.)
Weatherford, who works at Strategos Public Affairs with former Rep. Trey Traviesa and former legislator and Education Commissioner Jim Horne, also said he did not ask anyone ahead of time to appoint him.
"Having been a student athlete here I think they appreciated my perspective,'' said Weatherford who added that he is also recent graduate who is not "too far removed" from campus life.
Bense defended the people he recommended for the search committee to the full FSU board saying he tried to a "cross section of folks" who had various ties to the university including alumni and athletic boosters and professors.
"I'm sure I made a lot of people unhappy,'' Bense said following this week's search committee meeting.
Bense, who has said several times that politics are a reality for university presidents to deal with, continues to insist that the search is wide open and that no one nominee has the job locked down.
"I'm doing all I can to do away with that myth,'' Bense said.
Bense also contends the decision to hire a new search consultant and to revisit the timeline now in place shows that he and other search committee members are listening.
"I do hope that the faculty recognizes that today we clearly listened to them,'' Bense said. "We're going to reset the clock and hopefully we can find a great new president."
But Lawson, who spent three decades in the Florida Legislature, said that in his mind Thrasher remains firmly "in the mix" of people that the university should consider.
"If you are not very astute to the legislative process, the university may not flourish,'' he said.