Appearance of Impropriety 2: In Search of Florida State’s President

Appearance of Impropriety 2: In Search of Florida State’s President

Earlier this week, I began a discussion of the appearance of impropriety. The first story concerned executives from Citizens Insurance taking executive positions with private sector firms with which Citizens had been doing business, often business related to the position the former Citizens executive had held.

Each of the departures was reviewed, at the request of reporters, by the general counsel for Citizens. Each was found to be in accord with the ethics rules under which the former Citizens executive had operated.

My point was not that ethics laws had been violated. It was not that any of these executives had done anything illegal or even unethical.

My point was that the acts could be (and have been) perceived as inappropriate by interested observers.  Furthermore, some of the arguments offered in defense of the actions had the effect of reinforcing the perception of impropriety.

The appearance of impropriety cuts both ways. One might fear that the company got a better deal because the then-Citizen executive was looking to move on. And one might suspect that the new position gained in the private sector had more to do with the good that had already been done for the company than the good that might be done in the future.

There is no evidence that these executives used whatever influence they might have had at Citizens to give their current employers unfair advantages. It’s just a matter of appearances . . . and, unfortunately, those appearances can be harmful.

Today’s example involves Florida State University’s presidential search.

Florida State University has great ambitions. FSU would like to be among the most prestigious research universities in the country, as well as a fine place to get an education, and the home of champions. Selecting the right president is an important part of that path to greatness. A thorough, competitive search and recruitment process is essential to get the best leader one can from a national pool of potential presidents.

But such a search process becomes very difficult when one candidate is the equivalent of the 800-pound gorilla, a candidate so powerful that other qualified individuals may simply conclude it isn’t worth applying. If Superman is already at the starting line, perhaps one should just stay home. Similarly, if Darth Vader walks into the ring, other fighters probably should call it a night.

This is precisely what has happened to the FSU presidential search . . . twice.

The first premier contender, entirely by rumor (his application didn’t arrive until well after the search had been derailed) was State Senator John Thrasher, an FSU alum, fundraiser and political patron.

Bill Funk, the consultant leading the search, advised the search committee last month that the rumors about Senator Thrasher’s candidacy and its likely outcome were so widespread (we’re talking nationally here) that all the strong candidates had concluded it wasn’t worth their time to apply.

So the search committee decided to interview one candidate, and only one candidate, even before his application had been circulated. That interview was scheduled for June 11. In the meantime, Senator Thrasher applied for the position.

As if to reinforce the political dimensions of this search, the second shock came this week, when the search process resumed on the heels of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston’s announcement that he would submit his application for the position. The consultant called it a game changer, and the special interview with Senator Thrasher appears now to have been canceled.

It is worth noting at this point that neither Senator Thrasher nor Chief Justice Polston has any experience in university administration. Senator Thrasher has served on FSU’s Board of Trustees (including a stint as chairman). Chief Justice Polston is an adjunct law professor at FSU’s College of Law.

But neither has lived the professional life of a university administrator . . . or even that of a full-time faculty member.

I’m not saying that Senator Thrasher and Justice Polston wouldn’t make good presidents for FSU. I think there are good reasons to believe that either one of them could make significant and positive contributions to the future of the institution as president.

But I also could say that about some other folks, the kind of folks Mr. Funk was talking to last month when he threw up his hands and suggested the search committee just go ahead and interview the good senator. The kind of folks one normally thinks of when thinking of a university president for an emerging great university.

People whose experience with universities is extensive and successful.

But none of them are in the hunt at present. And my bet is that none of them will be, now that these two political titans have entered the ring.

Is all of this improper?

Certainly a search held up by someone who hasn’t even applied bends the normal process rather badly. And certainly a search for a chief executive where the only candidates seriously considered have one thing in common, and it’s not experience, seems rather atypical.

A field of otherwise strong contenders has not bothered to apply because of the appearance that the search will be determined by political criteria. That’s a problem . . . not only for the search, but for the university and its future.