Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Thrasher gets cushy university spot he once fought against

Back in 2012, a brave senator from St. Augustine tried to stop barely qualified Florida legislators from exploiting their political clout and snatching cushy jobs at state colleges and universities.

The senator introduced ethics legislation that would have prohibited lawmakers from copping jobs with state colleges or universities while in office. Or for two years after the end of their terms.

It was a worthy, if futile, effort. An embarrassing number of lawmakers had been grabbing snazzy jobs that should have gone to actual academics. House Speaker Ray Sansom was awarded a $110,000-a-year vice presidency at Northwest Florida State College in 2008 after he secured millions in extra state funds for the college (including a $6 million earmark for an “emergency operations center” that was actually meant to serve as an airplane hangar for one of Sansom’s major campaign contributors.)

And there was the $152,000 that Brevard Community College paid Sen. Mike Haridopolos back in 2003 to write a textbook-quality “history of Florida politics.” Oddly, only one copy of the great book was ever published — 175 double-spaced typewritten pages that a reporter found secreted in some obscure corner of the college library years later. (Haridopolos, who was elected Senate president despite his ethical lapses, later wheedled himself into a $75,000-a-year part-time teaching job at the University of Florida.)

In 2008, even as Florida International University was cutting 38 positions, shutting down six research centers and eliminating 23 degree programs, the school managed to fund a $69,000 teaching job for a former state representative named Marco Rubio.

So many of these ethically questionable intrusions by pols into academia were reported that our brave state senator from St. Augustine felt duty-bound to fix this mess (though his bill never reached a full Senate vote.) “There just seems to be a proliferation of these,” he told reporters in 2012. “It’s been a subject of a lot of concern.”

Two years later, it still is. As evidenced this week when Florida State University’s trustees went through a long and embarrassing sham process to pick a politician-turned-lobbyist-turned politician as FSU’s president.

That would be the very same, no longer so brave senator from Jacksonville. Sen. John Thrasher who tried so hard in 2012 to keep term-limited pols from using the state higher education system as a retirement plan, will swap his Senate seat for a half-million-bucks-a-year gig as FSU president.

The pick had not been the stuff of high drama. Thrasher had been the inevitable choice to succeed departing President Eric Barron since last spring. Everyone knew the fix was in.

The term “sham,” describing the process, didn’t originate with me. That came from Bill Funk, the consultant hired by FSU’s trustees to round up candidates to replace Barron. But Funk emailed a trustee last spring that it was a waste of time trying to find highly qualified applicants when everyone knew that it was Thrasher’s job for the asking. “It is my strongly held view that the opportunity for any real competitive process involving John has long passed,” Funk wrote. “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.”

When Funk suggested simply interviewing Thrasher first and dispensing with the faux candidates, howls of protests caused him to quit the assignment last June. The trustees then went ahead with the pretense that some other candidate, perhaps with solid academic credentials, just might get chosen. Not that anybody was much fooled.

Meanwhile, the FSU faculty senate passed a resolution noting that Thrasher “lacks the stated qualifications required for the position.” Professors and students were also bothered that the senator offered only vague non-answers when asked about evolution or climate change.

Not that any of that mattered. “They wasted the academic candidates’ time, they wasted the time of all of the faculty, students, and staff who attended the meetings and forums, they wasted taxpayer money, and in the process gave the university a permanent black eye,” Jennifer M. Proffitt, president of the FSU chapter of United Faculty of Florida, told me via email Wednesday evening.

That was because Thrasher himself had the one all-important credential that none of his academic rivals could match. He was chairman of Rick Scott’s reelection campaign. The trustees voted 11-2 Tuesday to give the 70-year-old retiring senator a first rate golden parachute.

If only the state had paid more attention, back in 2012, to that brave senator from St. Augustine.