Fundraising plays key role in naming of new UF and FSU presidents

The University of Florida hired Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs as its 12th president on Wednesday.

There were no protesters. No screaming matches. No idle threats.

No naked attempt to undercut the public and open process.

In short, it was a very different presidential search from the one just concluded last month at Florida State University.

Both UF and FSU represent the state of affairs at universities across the country. Today, more than ever before, universities must be mindful of ... no, make that obsessed with ... money.

So, increasingly, we're seeing universities take one of two paths: hire a pedigreed academic whom nobody's ever heard of but who is a proven fundraiser; or hire a big-name outsider with lots of splash — good or bad — who's a proven fundraiser.

We just happened to watch both scenarios play out in fewer than 30 days at Florida's two best known universities.

Fuchs, an engineer who climbed the academic ranks, beat out the two other finalists: New York University Provost David McLaughlin, a mathematician, and Sibrandes Poppema, president of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and an expert on Hodgkin's disease.

That list of finalists differed dramatically from FSU's. John Thrasher, a state senator and former speaker of the Florida House without any academic credentials, appeared to be FSU's top choice from the beginning.

Not surprisingly, faculty recoiled. It didn't help that FSU's search committee tried to clear the field and interview only Thrasher, or that Thrasher gave sketchy answers to questions about his thoughts on climate change and evolution.

FSU marched forward with the mantra that Thrasher is a seasoned fundraiser who knows this state's political system as well as anyone. He could be the one to bring FSU to the next level, trustees said.

Brutal budget cuts from state legislatures, growing pressure on universities to reduce student debt by graduating students on time and prepared for the right jobs, and cutthroat competition for research dollars have all conspired to bring about a heightened, if not new, focus on money.

Make no mistake. Fuchs (pronounced Fox) and the other finalists at UF spent a lot of time talking about money, too.

"Even traditional college presidents don't talk like they used to," said Jack Stripling, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, who focuses on presidents and governing boards. "One of their core constituencies is the political class of the state. College presidents of every stripe talk more about economic development than human development."

UF trustees lauded Fuchs for his fundraising for a $2 billion technology campus at Cornell.

UF wants more than anything to break into the Top 10 research universities. And trustees seemed to hold strictly to the criteria for the job designed to meet that goal.

Florida State essentially threw out its criteria to hire Thrasher.

Fuchs said earlier in the process that he didn't want to come to UF without the faculty's support.

Thrasher wasn't deterred by faculty opposition.

I'd be surprised if Fuchs knew more than a single line to "We Are the Boys From Old Florida."

Thrasher bleeds garnet and gold.

Two very different searches for two very different presidents.

But both have peers across the country, though traditional presidents are still the majority. About 34 percent of university presidents were chief academic officers before they were hired. Just 11 percent came from outside higher education, according to the American Council on Education.

Outside hires often get more attention. In recent years former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took over Purdue University and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano became president of the University of California.

There must be hope for Thrasher if Kenneth Starr of Monica Lewinsky fame can succeed at Baylor University. Starr was hired in 2010 despite skeptical faculty. This year the Faculty Senate voted to praise him, noting his "spirit of cooperation."

Fuchs and Thrasher have at least one thing in common. They both fit the profile for today's typical university president: white men age 59 or older.

bkassab@tribpub.com or 407-420-5448

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