Florida's two best-known universities — fiercely competitive on the athletic field and among their alumni — are each getting new presidents that vary significantly in their background and experience.
The state board that oversees Florida's state university system on Thursday officially confirmed the selections for the University of Florida and Florida State University. The Board of Governors approved the hires while meeting on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
The University of Florida, which is striving to become one of the nation's leading public universities, will now be led by Cornell University Provost W. Kent Fuchs. Florida State, which wants to join the same elite group of research schools that its rival is already a part of, is going with powerful Republican state Sen. John Thrasher as its president.
"Thrasher and Fuchs each have unique strengths that will immensely benefit two of our system's largest institutions," said Mori Hosseini, chairman of the Board of Governors in a statement. "Both presidents are dedicated to the board's mission and the overall success of our state university system, and I look forward to working with them."
Thrasher, 70, is an attorney, a former lobbyist and a legislator who once served as House speaker and also had a brief stint as chairman of the state GOP. Fuchs, 59, has been a professor of electrical and computer engineering and has held leadership position at major universities the last 20 years.
Thrasher's lack of an academic background, as well as his political work, has drawn fire from some students and faculty. During his interviews, the Florida State alumnus sidestepped questions on climate change and evolution. The search itself was also tumultuous after a consultant initially hired by the school said Thrasher's candidacy was dissuading other serious candidates to apply.
Board of Governors member Dean Colson said that while he thought someone without an academic background could lead a state university, he criticized the way the search was handled. He said there was a perception that Thrasher was the preferred candidate.
"How you handle the search process may be just as important as which person you pick from a pool of candidates," Colson said. "The goal must be to find the most qualified person. We have to be careful that we never let a president's job be the expected reward of a lifetime of good service."Thrasher is replacing Eric Barron, who stepped down earlier this year to become the next president of Penn State University. Thrasher will be paid a base salary of $430,000 with a potential annual bonus of $100,000.
By contrast the contract with Fuchs (pronounced fox) would pay him an annual base salary of $860,000. Fuchs is replacing retiring president Bernie Machen.
Both Thrasher and Fuchs were picked initially by local university boards, but their selection had to be confirmed by the Board of Governors. Florida used to let the state panel, which was once called the Board of Regents, actually select and pick presidents for all state universities. But while speaker Thrasher helped lead the effort to dissolve the Board of Regents and create trustees for each school.