Who owns Florida State University?

This morning, one of FSU’s faculty wags tweeted this in response to the decision of the university’s Board of Trustees to hire Senator John Thrasher as FSU’s new President:  “It’s official:  The State University System of Florida is the fourth branch of government.”  It’s a stretch to call the university system a branch of government, but it’s certainly true that FSU (like the other SUS institutions) belongs not to the faculty or students, but to the citizens of the State of Florida.  As such, the university is subject to Florida’s elected leaders who – like it or not – represent the opinions of the majority of Floridians.

However, there is an enormous gap between the backgrounds and viewpoints of FSU’s faculty and those of the vast majority of Florida’s citizens.  The just-completed presidential search put that gap on full display.  The Board of Trustees, which along with the President is the interface between the university and the state’s elected leaders, had a completely different set of priorities in the presidential search (finding ways to work with elected officials to increase the university’s resources) than the majority of faculty members did (maintaining a purist’s vision of academic integrity and educational breadth).

The forum in which Senator Thrasher answered questions and concerns from the faculty showed just how difficult the exchange between the state’s ruling class and the faculty can be.  I may have read the intentions of my faculty colleagues incorrectly, but it seemed to me that the majority of the questions and concerns were presented in good faith, and after I returned from the forum I told an informed friend that the forum made me proud to be a member of the FSU faculty.  Senator Thrasher seemed determined to use the forum as an opportunity to begin prospecting for routes across the gulf that he already knew separated him from the majority of the faculty members in the room.  Despite what I saw as the good intentions on both sides, the meeting was tense and the tremendous challenges that both the senator and faculty face in learning to get along were clear.

During the forum, I told Senator Thrasher that if he were to become President he would have to be a great listener.  Others said similar things.

But the responsibility for moving the university forward does not rest solely with the President and the Board of Trustees.  Each member of the faculty should reflect on what she or he wants for FSU, and what she or he is willing (and able) to contribute to making that happen.

For one thing, as individuals we could consider reaching back across the gulf separating us from the majority of the state’s citizens and its ruling class.  What do they want from us?  Could we, in good conscience, work toward some of their hopes and goals?  Most Florida parents are anxious about the futures of their children as society suffers through a wrenching economic transition.  The state’s most urgent goals have to be figuring out how to empower the majority of the next generation to achieve middle class lives (which isn’t necessarily FSU’s job) and to prepare Florida’s next generation of leaders for the brave new world, which includes a ruthless globalized economy (which is FSU’s job).  What contribution can each of us make toward those goals?

In one way at least, the Thrasher presidency will be like every other university presidency – it will be a two-way street.  Individual faculty members will have to decide whether they want the university and the state in which we live to succeed.  If we do, we will need to take the initiative to make it happen.

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