FSU presidency competition heating up at last

The presidential search that has dragged on for months at one of Florida’s top universities has at last attracted more interest from the academic world.

Several people who have held leadership roles at universities around the nation waited until just before the midnight Tuesday deadline to apply for the open presidency at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Until now, the clear front-runner has been state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, an FSU alum and powerful politician with no academic leadership experience.

Among the 14 last-minute candidates are the chancellor of the Colorado State University system and the University of South Carolina’s provost. But the name that is most familiar locally is FSU interim president Garnett Stokes, who served as provost under former President Eric Barron.

Although her application for the presidency was all the talk among the faculty, Stokes walked into the crowded student union Wednesday afternoon to participate in the launch of the school’s “kNOw MORE” sexual-assault awareness campaign.

The campaign, which focuses on preventing sexual violence and supporting students who report being assaulted, comes as FSU remains under federal investigation along with 75 other colleges and universities accused of mishandling sexual-violence and harassment complaints.

The spotlight has been especially harsh at FSU, which is recovering from months of scrutiny about the way it and local police handled sexual-assault allegations against star quarterback Jameis Winston.

“We didn’t want to wait for [U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] to tell us what we should be doing,” Stokes said.

She had long been rumored as a potential candidate for the permanent job. Stokes said Wednesday that the support she received from students and alumni over the summer prompted her to apply.

She waited until the last minute because she did not want her position as an internal candidate to scare off other strong contenders. She also said her initial focus was not on becoming Barron’s permanent replacement but rather about ensuring that the school did not lose its momentum after his departure in April.

The school is launching a $1 billion capital campaign — half of which already has been raised or pledged — as it seeks a spot among the nation’s top 25 public universities.

Many students have not been following the presidential search closely, but they have heard that a powerful state senator, Thrasher, is considered the front-runner for the job.

Members of the FSU faculty and some student organizations have been critical of Thrasher and said they felt he has been unfairly given an inside track to the top job. Many of them say someone with years of higher education experience, like Stokes, is a better fit for a major research institution.

“Just being a powerful politician is not enough,” faculty union president Jennifer Proffitt said Wednesday.

The presidential search advisory committee will meet Friday to whittle down the list of 39 applicants and decide which to invite to campus next week for interviews.

Search consultant Alberto Pimental is evaluating the qualifications of the hopefuls, and will brief the committee on how these candidates fit with the job description approved by the FSU Board of Trustees. There will also be public comment before the committee starts the process of elimination.

Six to 10 people are likely to be invited for interviews, with three being the absolute minimum, search committee chairman Ed Burr said.

Stokes, who was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia before coming to FSU in 2011, now becomes a front-runner alongside Thrasher. The two candidates symbolize the decision facing the Board of Trustees: Whether to go for a career academic leader or an influential politician who says he can help the school raise half a billion dollars.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston, who like Thrasher announced his interest months ago, is also expected to make the short-list, and would be another non-academic candidate.