For months now, a battle has been raging at Florida State University to stop what student and faculty say is "[a] hostile political takeover of the presidential search process at FSU."
Students, faculty, alumni, and the Tallahassee community have mounted a campaign of protests, disruptions, petitions, letters, and a proposal for a reset of the process in response to the increasingly clear reality that FSU's Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC) has been rigged to select former Florida Republican Senator John Thrasher, described as "one of the most powerful Republican politicians in Florida history," as FSU's next president.
The FSU community has been staunchly opposing Thrasher's candidacy for president because he is, by almost all standards normally applied to university presidents, a terrible candidate for the job.
Whereas university presidents are almost always required to have a Ph.D., Thrasher lacks real academic credentials. As a legislator, Thrasher has opposed institutions that are essential to higher education like faculty unions and tenure, was caught violating ethics laws twice in the Florida House of Representatives, has voted several times to cut Florida’s higher-education budget, and he himself sponsored a failed bill that would have made exactly this kind of legislature-to-university transition illegal for him to make. Thrasher also is currently serving as chair for the reelection campaign of Florida Gov. Rick Scott - who appointed FSU Board of Trustees Chair Allan Bense (and others), who in turn has handpicked much of the search committee's members. And to top it all off, Thrasher was recognized in 1998 as Legislator of the Year by the infamously anti-democratic, pay-to-play legislation mill for corporations known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and has continued to have ties with the democracy-corrupting organization.
Thrasher's candidacy has been consistently, loudly, and unanimously opposed by the students and faculty on the PSAC and across campus since the search began back in May. Yet he is being interviewed as one of four finalists in the search, and many in Florida believe that he is very likely to be the next president of FSU anyway.
Presidential search process "a sham", student & faculty dissent silenced
When former Florida State University president Eric Barron announced that he was stepping down to take a job at Pennsylvania State University earlier this year, FSU began the process of finding his replacement by having FSU's Board of Trustees Chair Allan Bense establish the PSAC and appointing its members. The number of PSAC appointees has bloated from 19 in the search that selected Barron to 27 in the current search. Yet despite the growth, students and faculty - the primary stakeholders in the university - hold only one third of the seats on the committee. The rest are held by what students and faculty have called "political appointees" who have looser ties to the university and include several former politicians and Rick Scott appointees.
"The corporate/political influence on Bense’s PSAC is blatant and unapologetic," say members of the FSU Progress Coalition, a bloc of students, faculty, and campus organizations opposed to Thrasher's candidacy and the current search process. Their research has documented that not only do conflicts of interest abound among the PSAC appointees who have been favoring Thrasher, but several of them are connected to not only ALEC, but also have ties to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire bankrollers of many conservative causes, think tanks, and organizations that advocate for their far-right positions.
"Many members [of the PSAC] have direct connections to the controversial corporate-legislative partnership ALEC and Koch-funded institutes," Progress Coalition students wrote in an August op ed in the Tallahassee Democrat. "In fact, ALEC and Koch affiliates have more representation on Bense’s PSAC than either faculty or students."
Case in point, they say, is Bense himself. "Chair Bense himself is the Chair of the Board of Directors of a Koch funded think tank - the James Madison Institute (JMI). JMI is also a member of ALEC’s Education Task Force," the body within ALEC that conspires to pass policies across the country that treat education as a business more than a public good.
With Bense's appointments, the "outside" members of the PSAC constitute a 17-member "super majority" on the committee is capable of voting down even unanimous opposition from the students and faculty. And it has done just that every time the students and faculty on the PSAC have tried oppose Thrasher's advancement as a candidate.
The first occasion was on May 21st. At the suggestion of the William Funk & Associates search firm the PSAC hired to assist with the search - the same firm that "helped" Purdue University select former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels as its president, despite similar conflicts of interest and impropriety - there was a motion to consider Thrasher as the only candidate for the presidency.
"Funk advised the committee to vet only Senator John Thrasher as a candidate for the position," FSU faculty member Dr. Jennifer Proffitt explained in an op ed. "This, he argued, would allow for a more level playing field--if the committee votes for him to be president, the search would be over; if the committee votes no, then other candidates may apply.
The move was obviously political, Proffitt continued. "[I]t clearly demonstrated Florida political cronyism as the motion to interview Thrasher was made by a former President of the Senate, seconded by a former state senator and current FSU lobbyist, and supported in debate by Bense, former Speaker of the House… This is Florida politics, pure and simple."
The motion to fast-track Thrasher as the only candidate for the presidency passed 15-9 in the PSAC, despite the unanimous "no" vote of all the students and faculty.
Emails between William Funk, the head of the search firm, and top FSU administrators later revealed that Thrasher had communicated his interest in the position through back channels, prompting Funk to suggest him as the lone candidate. Even Funk admitted that to continue to pretend to actually be considering other candidates in the search after the fast-track vote "would now be a sham... and would be roundly seen as such.”
Search reopened, students and faculty demand restructure
The initial effort to fast-track Thrasher as the sole candidate failed, however, after the FSU Faculty Senate formally voted "no confidence" in the Funk search firm, saying that Funk "appears to be following an agenda which is not committed to an open and honest search for the best candidates."
Days later, Funk & Associates bowed out of the search process, the search was reopened, and a new application date was set for Sept. 2nd.
As news spread about the failed fast-track proposal, students and faculty were outraged. The flagrantly inappropriate strong arm tactic touched of broad efforts across the campus supporting a push to "Reset the Search" because it had become clear that the process was "illegitimate" and stacked in favor of "outside" interests, whereas real democracy called for the students and faculty to be the ones with the most say in who their next president would be.
“It’s great if outsiders want to help select the next president,” said Jerry Funt, co-president of the FSU Progress Coalition. “But inside stakeholders should have a lot more say.”
Within weeks after the failed fast-track, students, faculty, and community members had created a Moveon.org petition, which gained nearly 1,500 signatures, a #ResetTheSearch hashtag, and a Student Plan calling on FSU and Chair Bense to restructure of the PSAC to include fairer representation: one third students, one third faculty, and one third other "appropriately interested community members."FSU's Student Senate and Congress of Graduate Students (COGS) both passed resolutions supporting the call for the restructure as well.
Ultimately, the movement on FSU's campus has been about democracy. "We believe that without representation in votes the student and faculty voice has been squelched," FSU Progress Coalition student activists Ralph Wilson and Lakey (her full legal name) explained. "Therefore, we demand a PSAC restructure that includes one third student and one third faculty."
It seems utterly reasonable that the people directly impacted by the presidential decision would be the ones who have the lion's share of influence on the question. But Chair Bense and the PSAC think differently.
Despite the fast-track debacle, the search process continued, with other, more qualified candidates eventually applying for the FSU presidency. Thrasher, who formally applied this time, was included.
Koch-FSU funding contracts create deeper corruption worries, doubts about academic freedom
Even before the presidential search scandal, FSU administrators had already been embedding political relationships into the university's supposedly academic functions. A key piece of FSU history has fueled student and faculty suspicions that impropriety at the university was more widespread : its funding relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF).
The relationship began in 2008, when FSU's economics department agreed to receive a $1.5 million from the CKF - with strings attached. The donation would only be made if the department could ensure Koch representatives that it would be used for conservative academic courses and that the CKF's representatives would have final say over which professors would be hired by the department. The deal would allow them to bend the department's intellectual focus toward that of the pro-market, anti-government values the Kochs themselves hold - a move that is an affront to the university's academic credibility.
"It amounts to the Koch brothers' foundation basically trying to buy a position on the faculty." Association of American University Professors (AAUP) president Rudy Fichtenbaum said of the deal. "And that certainly is a threat to academic freedom."
The details of the agreement were circulated in an internal memo penned by economics department head Dr. Bruce Benson, who, as another one of Koch's conditions of the agreement, would be required to remain the head of the economics department for three more years, despite the fact that Benson had already stated that he would retire soon.
Many of Benson's statements in the memo are telling are telling of just how well he understood the inappropriate amount of influence the Kochs were exercising. "As we all know, there are no free lunches. Everything comes with costs," Benson wrote in the memo. "Koch cannot tell a university who to hire, but they are going to try to make sure, through contractual terms and monitoring, that people hired are consistent with 'donor intent.'"
Despite being called a “two-fold conflict of interest” by the FSU Faculty Senate and serious concerns that it would compromise academic freedom, the questionable contract giving the CKF influence over economics faculty hiring and curriculum was signed.
The contract was quietly renewed as one of the last acts of outgoing FSU president Eric Barron last year, though that administration claims it included "amendments" that were supposed to remove the inappropriate influence that the original agreement gave to the Koch brothers.
"But the changes to the hiring in the new agreement give the Koch brothers just as much, if not more, power over hiring as they had in the first agreement," the FSU Progress Coalition's Funt told NPR. "Nothing has been improved. The agreement is still bad. It's still harming academic integrity at FSU and giving private donors inappropriate access."
The new agreement reduced the number of Koch's representatives in the process and no longer gave them the final decision about whether to hire a professor or not. But it stipulated that Koch representatives would get to decide on whether or not professors could be paid from the pot of Koch money, which essentially guarantee that the cash-strapped FSU - hobbled by years of large budget cuts from the state legislature, many of which were supported by then Senator Thrasher - would not hire a professor it could not afford to pay, and thus would only hire professors it knew would be acceptable to the Koch Foundation.
Even Benson, the economics chair, seemed to admit that the contract was less about academics than it was about political games. "I wish that universities were free of political manipulation," Benson wrote in the memo. "Unfortunately, the reality is that we live and work in an environment that is subject to all sorts of political manipulations."
ALEC-supported bill bans Koch funding transparency
Not only has the administration's commitment to academic freedom come into question, but the university's transparency has become an issue as well. When asked to disclose details of their agreements with the Koch's, the administration has been slow to do so. It took over a year for the agreement with the economics department to be made public.
Equally troubling is the suspicious coincidence that in the same year that the FSU-Koch agreement was renewed, the Florida legislature passed SB 318, a law that bans the public from of all meetings between universities and their private funders where "research funding" arrangements like the one with the CKF were discussed. Counter intuitively, the bill even bans public participation when private groups are "providing a statement of public necessity" for their projects.
Labeled the "Koch Cover-Up Law" by FSU student activists, the bill was supported by a number of Florida ALEC legislators.
"Predictably," the student coalition wrote in an op ed in the Tallahassee Democrat, "[the bill] was sponsored by legislators who champion the Koch-funded organizations American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity."
Students and Faculty testified against the bill in a Senate Committee chaired by then-Senator Thrasher himself, to no avail. Thrasher voted for the bill.
In addition to the presidential search's clear bias, FSU students and faculty are deeply concerned that, now that the Koch Cover-Up Law has passed, Thrasher would have both the incentive and the ability to expand Koch’s growing and corrupting influence over university policy, curriculum, and hiring far beyond the economics department if he becomes the next president. "President" Thrasher would be poised to make decisions to give Koch- and ALEC-connected friends access to the entire university.
Thrasher advances as restructure motion defeated
The pressure to restructure the Presidential Search Advisory Committee continued throughout the summer, with a national petition calling on FSU and Chair Bense to support the restructuring plan gaining 2,600 signatures, shining a spotlight on the university's cronyism and compromised integrity. The student plan for restructure - which was supported by the faculty senate, student government, multiple student groups on campus -continued to attempt to restore some semblance of legitimacy to a process that has seemed rigged from the start to select Thrasher.
A key August 26th meeting of the FSU Board of Trustees was the last moment that Chair Bense could respond to the Student Plan and restructure the committee. But in the week before the meeting, Bense dodged the decision by quietly cancelling the Board meeting, meaning that the restructure question would be left unanswered before the next September 5th PSAC meeting, where the field of eleven applicants would be narrowed to four finalists.
The student and faculty resistance to electing Thrasher continued in that meeting, when the PSAC student and faculty representatives proposed and unanimously supported a motion to simply remove Thrasher from the list of candidates being considered to make room for other, more academically qualified candidates, including the well-liked current interim FSU president, Garnett Stokes. But once again, the students' and faculty's motion was shut down by the PSAC's corporate super majority.
The September 5th meeting erupted. Students and faculty disrupted the proceedings in protest of the defeat of a motion to exclude Thrasher from the final set of candidates. Several were removed by police, with several more threatened with arrest or expulsion for continuing to vocalize their support for removing Thrasher.
The students and faculty removed were attempting to read aloud their proposal to restructure the PSAC and decrying the university's failures in transparency and integrity, saying that the search process demonstrated a "total disregard for process, democracy, transparency and the integrity of FSU’s [Presidential Search Advisory Committee]."
The meeting was shut down for over an hour, but when it resumed, the PSAC proceeded to advance Thrasher to the next round of interviews, and despite calls from all corners of the campus to pick anyone but him, Thrasher has advanced to the final round of four candidates. The committee also removed the current interim FSU president Garnett Stokes from consideration, a move that outraged students and faculty even more because they saw Stokes as an excellent candidate.
The three other candidates Thrasher is competing with are former university leaders and faculty from across the country who, unlike Thrasher, have the requisite academic credentials and experience in higher education leadership. Yet Thrasher remains the likely nominee.
Faculty and alumni threaten consequences, make Thrasher unwelcome
In response to the continued politicization and corruption of the search process and the undemocratic exclusion of student and faculty voices, the FSU community has started raising the stakes. A series of faculty and alumni have spoken out, saying that if Thrasher wins, they will take action against the university.
One professor wrote in an email that the consideration of Thrasher had them "ready to leave FSU for good, after two decades here. And," the faculty member added, "I plan on taking my grant money, post docs, lab and graduate students with me."
Another faculty member remarked that "I have always remained faithful to FSU. I will, however, quit immediately if Mr. Thrasher is chosen. Immediately."
A series of alumni have spoken out as well, threatening to withhold donations to the university if Thrasher is selected. One alumni said, "I believe it was a grave mistake to eliminate Provost Stokes [current interim FSU president] from consideration, however the Presidency must now go to a qualified academic individual (read, one with a PhD, not a corporate minded politician)."
In spite of consistent opposition, Thrasher came to campus on Monday for interviews with students, faculty, and staff where he was met with protests and faced with tough questions.
In his interview with university faculty, he was asked if he believed in evolution or climate change. Thrasher dodged both questions, saying he has "a great faith that guides his work." The non-answer gave credence to the idea that Thrasher would use his position to advance climate change denial, a key agenda of the Koch brothers' influence at universities.
Thrasher became visibly upset and even threatened to walk out of the interview and when audience members laughed at his response to the question.
Importantly, students exposed Thrasher's ties to the Koch brothers during his interview with them, asking him whether he had ever accepted Koch brothers funding and how he could protect the university from corruption. Thrasher lied in his response, saying he has never accepted money from Koch Industries - a claim students quickly proved was not true.
Students also asked if he would pledge to not sign future agreements with Koch brothers - he again dodged the question.
In contrast, the other three more academically qualified candidates provided clear answers to questions and appeared to be much more comfortable during their interviews.
With on-campus interviews complete, the PSAC will meet on Monday that 22nd to eliminate one candidate of the four, and recommend the final three to the FSU Board of Trustees for their final selection. Given the many connections Thrasher has on the Board and the way the PSAC has taken pains to keep his candidacy alive, Thrasher is still widely expected to be the Board's pick for FSU president.
On US campuses, democracy is in decline, corporatism is on the rise
The process unfolding at FSU looks troublingly similar to much of American politics today: decision makers support outcomes or agendas favoring the rich and well-connected despite broad public opposition, well-publicized conflicts of interests, and with disregard to legitimate requests for redress of grievances voiced by those affected in processes that seem rigged from the start.
And it's not just in Florida. "We believe that FSU is one example in a national crisis," the FSU Progress Coalition students wrote earlier this month.
They are right.
The FSU situation is reflective of a broader national trend in recent years that has seen powerful politicians appointed by questionable processes to head prestigious universities - despite lacking the qualifications normally required of university presidents and clear conflicts of interests.
FSU's connections with the Koch brothers' influence is also part and parcel of rise in "charitable" contributions that they have been using to gain control over ideas and curricula in US colleges and universities.
The FSU Progress Coalition students' research documents that "the Charles Koch Foundation is already funding over 300 universities in the United States today and the numbers continue to increase." Anyone seeing this trend has to ask, they say, "How many of those universities have already been corrupted by Koch contracts? How many presidents have already been bought and sold?"
It's part of the disturbing reality that American higher education has been progressively shedding even the semblance of democracy it used to have in favor of an increasingly corporate style of governance where money and influence trump academic integrity and openness. The rise of this corporate higher education model - complete with questionable funding and political appointees - does not bode well for democracy at US universities or, in turn, for the US as a whole.
Over the last few decades we have seen the discourse about the purpose of higher education shift from a narrative about education as a public good that brings broad benefits to society - which it does - toward one that says going to college is an individual good that is necessary solely so that young people can land a high-paying job after graduation.
We do, of course, want to see that university graduates, as well as their uncredentialed peers, are eventually able to find security in a good job. But more than that, we also want - indeed, we need - to see those same young people prepared by the end of their education for more than a job. We need them to be ready to be an effective citizen in a democracy. Citizenship is its own type of work, but like most work, it is not an innate skill set. We need to learn how to do it.
Since its inception, public education has been tasked with teaching each new generation how to be effective citizens, because educated citizens are critical to a well-functioning democracy. And higher education, with its values of the intellectual freedom and spirit of fair and reasoned debate, has been the capstone lesson in that civic education.
Baby Boomers learned the lessons of democracy well during the '60s and '70s when American college campuses were hot beds of political activity, centers of social movements, and places where ideals of democracy were consistently lifted up as guiding principles for how the university should function.
But in today's more anti-democratic, neoliberalized university, with campuses much less open than in the past and students much more demobilized, there is increasingly no place for those kinds of positive civic lessons. In fact, the lessons taught by corrupted processes like the one at FSU are quite the opposite.
The growing trend of universities being corporate-funded and hostile to democratic influence is teaching the Millennial generation a very different lesson: democracy is just window dressing because in reality, cash rules.
With the influence of the Koch brothers and ALEC written all over the search process, the economics department agreement, and possibly much more of the campus if Thrasher is elected president, no campus appears to be teaching that lesson better today than Florida State University.
Bigger than FSU
The FSU students' and teachers' fight against the corrupted search process is about more than just the next president of one university. It's about whether American universities will continue to be places where another generation of young people will learn to be engaged, responsible, critical citizens, or if they will be seen more and more as only potential employees.
The lesson that FSU will ultimately teach through its presidential search process - that democracy and integrity matter, on the one hand, or that cash and connections are what matters on the other - is not yet clear.
If Thrasher is given the FSU presidency, despite the students and faculty being united against him, it will prop the door open at other universities for similar "hostile takeovers" of their governance. The beginning of Thrashers tenure as president would mark the end of campus democracy at FSU. And we should all beware what that means for our broader democracy down the line.
But there is still time to change the story at FSU. The Board of Trustees still has time to come to its senses, to finally hear what the students and faculty it ostensibly serves have been saying all along, and to select another candidate. It would be a huge win for democracy at FSU, but it could also possibly be the beginning of a reversal in the trend of American universities toward corporate-funded and political, rather than academic, institutions.
The history of US higher education is on the line at FSU, and the students and faculty have fought hard to keep that history one of integrity, academic freedom, and democracy. They have done just about all they could do, and now the decision of how to bend the arc of that history lies in the hands of FSU's Board of Trustees.
The FSU Board is set to issue its decision on FSU's next president on the 23rd of this month. And the nation will be watching.