The New Leaders of FSU and FAMU Look to the Future
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Work to Do
The first few months on the job weren’t a piece of cake for Thrasher. The Strozier shooting weighed heavily on everyone, and the university did all it could to help Ronny Ahmed, who was shot three times in the back and paralyzed, in his recovery. Ahmed went to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for treatment and is now back on campus.
“He’s paralyzed from the waist down, but we’ve done our best to make sure he has everything he needs to get started again and hopefully complete his degree,” Thrasher says.
Then came what he calls “the stuff” with athletics and the antics of quarterback Jameis Winston.
“It started as a joke at first and then almost became a reality, that the best day in the life of the president of FSU is when I didn’t hear from the athletic director,” Thrasher says now.
“I’m not going to talk a lot about it. It’s still in litigation. Jameis is gone, and I wish him the very best. Jameis is Jameis. He’s a charming young man in a lot of ways. Hopefully he’ll have the guidance and support he needs to survive in a very competitive environment, the National Football League. We wish him the very best.”
Through it all, Thrasher has not lost sight of his top priorities, which include getting FSU into the Top 25 public universities in the country, raising faculty salaries, building a world-class facility to house the College of Business and Dedman School of Hospitality, and making sure the university’s fundraising goal is met.
FSU’s First Lady Jean Thrasher and President John Thrasher serve ice cream during the university's annual President's Ice Cream Social.
FSU Photography Services/Bill Lax
As of early summer, the campaign was two-thirds of the way to the $1 billion mark and Thrasher, conceding it’s a big job to raise that kind of money, is hoping it will finish by 2018.
As for reaching the Top 25, the Legislature helped FSU take a major step toward that goal by designating it and the University of Florida as the state’s two pre-eminent universities. By meeting the criteria set by the state for that designation, the school gets extra resources. This year, FSU met all 12 of the criteria.
“If you’re in the Top 25, it gives you the opportunity to recruit some of the best faculty,” says Thrasher, looking toward the future. “It also gives us an opportunity to recruit some of the best students.”
FSU currently has 42,000 students, and that number will likely not grow by much. This fall’s incoming freshman class will have 5,000 students — who have an average 4.0 GPA and SAT score of 1863.
“These kids are bright, they’re smart and they want to be challenged,” Thrasher says.
He would like to see smaller size classes — the school is still trying to play catch-up from the recession by hiring more professors — and is looking for opportunities around the edges of the current campus for some expansion.
“For the big universities, we probably have the smallest footprint from the standpoint of available land, but buying property is very expensive. There is still an intimacy about our campus that I think others don’t have. I tell students, ‘Don’t be afraid of 42,000, the number. When you come here, you can shrink the campus by getting involved in some kind of service project or organization.’”
Meanwhile, there is the ongoing drive to make FSU an entrepreneurial university, commercializing research projects, attracting more research money, growing and enhancing the medical school.
Last year, FSU attracted the largest amount of research money in its history — $230 million — and Thrasher is reaching out to the National Science Foundation is see how to get more. The school is gearing its research to the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math), and a lot of that work is being done at Innovation Park, where the MagLab — the largest and highest-powered magnetic lab in the word — is bringing in scientists from across the country and around the world.
There is also another, more personal goal that Thrasher has set for FSU. He wants his school to be known as the most veteran-friendly university in the country. There is already an effort to encourage veterans to come to Tallahassee.
“We’re letting them know that if they come to FSU, they’ll have a unique opportunity to use their experience, not only for themselves but as mentors of other students,” Thrasher explains. “To me, veterans who come here are uniquely qualified to make a difference in the lives of a lot of our kids. And we want to make sure they have every opportunity to pursue their goals, whether in military service or the private sector.”
The university is already working on improving the veterans’ center. And before every graduation, there is a dinner at the president’s house honoring veterans — and giving them a special cord to wear for their graduation.
Thrasher smiles when talking about the job of assuming the mantle as FSU’s 15th president. Perhaps it’s the politician in him who loves the meet and greet, the handshaking and small talk with the small groups of prospective students touring campus, or current FSU students just walking around campus or attending organization meetings.
“As I analyze this job, creating new opportunities for faculty and expanding research, it ultimately comes back to the student experience here,” he says. “What are we doing to make sure that every student who comes here has the opportunity to pursue their hopes and dreams?
“So I get out a lot on campus, and I feel like that’s resonating. They want to have someone they can pick up the phone and call or email or text. I’m trying to be that person for them, so if they have something they need I can help them with it. The kids want to see the president, touch him, know what he’s about.”
Having recently wrapped up spring graduation ceremonies, Thrasher says the biggest reward of his job is knowing that he and the university have done something to get the students to a point in their lives where they are going to go out and change the world in many different ways.
“They’re going to do things for our community, for our state, for our country,” he says. “To me, that’s the ultimate thing that makes this job so incredible.”