Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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FSU’s Presidential ‘Choice’: How Florida Cronyism Really Works

It’s all over now but the glad-handing.

As the insider Board of Trustees planned all along, John Thrasher will be the next president of Florida State University.

Even though he’s prevented by law from lobbying on FSU’s behalf for the next two years — and lobbying expertise was supposed to be his strong selling point.

Even though he was against politicians jumping into cushy jobs at the universities they regulate before he was for it.

Even though there were three eminently qualified academic candidates with experience running major public institutions, and there were serious questions as to how Thrasher could navigate that world.

These are facts. In a pure democracy, where everyone has a say in governance, facts make a difference. But facts don’t matter when you have a power elite on your side.

Events like the FSU presidential anointment remind you what a closed shop Tallahassee can still be. And who wants to keep it that way.

This decision has always rested with the university’s Board of Trustees: one student, one professor, and a host of well-connected political and business luminaries who pump money into FSU, and who get plenty of money back out of it — through land deals, through political deals, through friendly institutes at the u, through athletic support subcontracts.

The very existence of the insular trustee system is due to Thrasher himself, who dismantled the state’s regents system and replaced it with this series of fiefdoms, the closest you can get to deregulation of a taxpayer-funded educational system that exists mainly for the benefit of taxpayers’ children.

The first chairman of FSU’s Board of Trustees was John Thrasher.

In this atmosphere, there really was no doubt how the presidential “selection” process would roll. Even the first hiring consultant brought in by the board to hire Thrasher knew the score. This is what he told a trustee in the spring: “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.”

The trustees replaced that consultant and proceeded with the sham.

What we witnessed on Tuesday was a small influential club’s successful assertion of authority over a taxpayer-funded public institution. That’s why it’s especially rich to hear connected beneficiaries of Thrasher’s impending reign attack his opponents and call them uncivil. It’s time to accept the “choice,” they say.

These cronies all seem to be taking criticism very personally. They know Thrasher, and he is a good man, they say!

But that’s the problem: They know Thrasher. They are incredibly privileged to have attained a status in life where their politics and their personal relationships overlap completely. They are too privileged to recognize that for most Floridians — certainly for most faculty and students at FSU — politics and personal relationships don’t overlap. And for the most part, their lives are dominated by the decisions of that small, connected elite for whom personal relationships mean everything.

All my life, FSU’s been stuck with a reputation as the more provincial, more cloistered, less inclusive flagship college in Florida. Here’s why. This is very Tallahasseean. This is very Southern. When Thrasher’s friends overruled the massive opposition and voted for him, they didn’t just vote “no” on the other three candidates. They voted “go back the way you came from.”

John Thrasher loves FSU in his way, of that I have no doubt. Many people love FSU, but not in the same ways, or for the same reasons. My fondness for the school is rooted in a community of support for generations of students, scholars, and civic leaders. I’ve counseled them and taught them. I’ve been one of them. I’ve rooted for them on fields and courts and in boardrooms. I will, of course, continue to do so.

But I’ve been sadly reminded, yet again, that this community consists of many concentric circles, and the innermost circle’s decisions pay the rudest of lip service to those of us on the outer edges. Out here, we hope Thrasher will make a better president than a politician. We hope that his boosters will be “civil.” But we don’t expect it. We’ve been around here too long.

Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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