Florida State University President John Thrasher has dedicated his life to serving the Sunshine State. Within the span of 50 years, Thrasher has served in several respected roles within multiple fields, including the military, law, government, and education. Prior to assuming the role of 15th president of Florida State University, Thrasher served as Chairman of the Clay County School Board, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, member of the Florida Senate, as well as chairman for the Republican Party of Florida.
Thrasher is Fluent in Floridian. When he isn’t leading one of the top 50 universities in the nation, he spends his time visiting two of Florida’s most beautiful destinations: St. Augustine Beach and Green Cove Springs. “We really love St. Augustine Beach but we love our little place in Green Cove Springs where we have a house still out in Clay County. We raised our children in that county.”
Outside of establishing the athletics-known university as a leading academic and research institution, Thrasher serves on the College Football Playoff Board of Managers. He notes that his position as a university president offers him a unique perspective as compared to other members. “I think having presidents involved, particularly understanding the academic side of the student athlete […] is a very positive thing.”
Listen to hear us talk about all of these issues and more.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate and in this episode brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Florida State University President, John Thrasher. In our conversation we will talk about what he thinks is the top issue facing FSU, about what he wishes he had known about the university system when he was a legislator and about his plans to make [00:00:30] FSU better known globally for its research and academics. I even asked him about his role on the College Football Playoff Board of Managers. And you can hear it all right now.
President Thrasher, thanks so much for being on the show. You have a long and successful history of public service in Florida but you really seem to be enjoying your role as FSU president. Has this job lived up to everything you hoped it would be?
John Thrasher: It’s my dream job. I’d never imagined I’d ever be here but the [00:01:00] way things, the moon and stars align and things happen, I was able to get here and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I tell everybody this. It’s the last job I’ll ever have. It’s a good way to go out and finish public service and hopefully do something for the Alma Mater that I love so much.
Chris Cate: Now that you’ve been president for a couple of years, is there anything that you know now about the university system that you wish you had known better as a legislator?
John Thrasher: Yeah. I use this term a lot in the office [00:01:30] here. This place has a lot of moving parts. You think about the different colleges we have. You think about the athletic programs that Florida State is so prominent with, think about the 42,000 students we have and the great faculty. It’s a place that a lot of things happen but you have to have a lot of good people focused on the mission and trying to enhance the opportunity for all of our students who come here and that’s the bottom line.
Chris Cate: [00:02:00] What would you say is the top issue facing FSU at the moment?
John Thrasher: It’s always about resources. I mean, it clearly is. You know, we’ve had a Raise the Torch campaign that we call it, named it. It was actually active when I got here, but it’s our ability to go out and raise outside resources. It’s a billion dollar campaign. We’re at the very end of that but fundraising never stops because you have so many things to try to do and you want to do in terms [00:02:30] of excellence in the university. While the legislature supports us admirably, there’s still things that we want to do beyond that. So, fundraising and outside resources are a big, big part of this job.
Chris Cate: FSU is very well known in the U.S. in large part because of the success of the athletic teams, but how do you take the next step and make the school known globally for its research and academics?
John Thrasher: Yeah, that’s one of my goals obviously that when I got [00:03:00] here is to get us into the top 25 public universities. That’s an aspirational thing that I think … No, it’s not a number like being number so-and-so in athletic events or sports teams but it enhances the value of our degrees for our kids that have been here and that will come here. It takes a combination of things. It takes resources, it takes a great faculty and it takes ensuring that we get the top quality of students who come here. I think we’re on the way. [00:03:30] Last year we moved up in U.S. News & World Report which is kind of the gold standard for measuring public universities. We moved up from 43 to 38. That was five slots but that was the most of any public university in the top 50 in the country.
We are continuing to increase our graduation rates, both four year and six year, which are two measuring points. We’re attracting great faculty. Our research is still coming in, doing very well and we’re hopeful that Congress will [00:04:00] continue to support research of our universities because it’s such a valuable thing for our country in terms of our quality of life. Things seem to be good. The momentum is good. The buzz is good for Florida State. When I travel around the state, certainly travel around the country even, people seem to be noticing Florida State outside of our great athletic programs.
Chris Cate: How do you recruit faculty to come to FSU? Are there particular areas of research that [00:04:30] you are really drawn to, that say we really want this [crosstalk 00:04:33].
John Thrasher: Yeah. We have one of the really incredible research venues here in campus of any place in the world really, and that’s our National Magnetic Lab. People come from all over the world to work in that lab and do research. It draws people here because it’s one of the few like it in the world. We have a great medical school. I think our engineering school is certainly trying [00:05:00] to come up. We have some incredible medical science programs that research is being done in. We’ve had some great research done on the Zika Virus right here at Florida State. A lot of people are noticing those things and are paying attention to them.
We had the Director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. France Cordova here not long ago who looked at all of the assets that we have here including many of the ones that are supported by the National Science Foundation. Had [00:05:30] a great visit with her and certainly introduced her to the governor. She is a great advocate of research for our universities in the country.
Chris Cate: Well, I know you have rivalries on the athletic field with another state school. How much do you seek out other school presidents to partner on issues?
John Thrasher: We’re one of the two designated by the Florida legislature preeminent [00:06:00] universities in the state as virtue of complying with the criteria that they set out, us and the University of Florida. Dr. Kent Fuchs and I are great friends and we work together on ensuring that the preeminent scholars that we use for faculty, for attracting faculty, for paying the folks that are doing great jobs here, those preeminent dollars are very valuable to us and we work together very closely on that.
You know, other universities, [00:06:30] right here in Tallahassee, Florida A&M, we have a joint engineering school with Florida A&M and we work very closely with them to ensure that we’re attracting the best young people that want to go into engineering and we’re providing them an opportunity beyond their education to go out and … One of the great opportunities by the way in the country, is a variety of engineering degrees now are being sought after by lots of major companies, not only in our state but certainly in our country.
Chris Cate: [00:07:00] Is there anything about being president that has surprised you, that maybe that you weren’t expecting?
John Thrasher: You know, the complexity. We’re a 1.8 billion dollar a year business, I guess if you want to call it a business in terms of the dollars. Certainly managing that and making sure that those resources are deployed in the correct place, making sure that we’re accountable for those resources to the legislature as well as our Board of Governors and my own Board of Trustees certainly is very important [00:07:30] thing and we spend a lot of time on. It’s still about attracting the best faculty, attracting the students. We probably had this past year one of the best years we’ve ever had in attracting students. We had over 42,000 applicants to Florida State, 17% more than the year before so something’s going on here.
There’s a buzz about FSU I think, particularly in our state where kids really look at this place as a destination that they want to come to. That’s a great positive [00:08:00] thing for us and a great positive thing for the work force for the future of Florida.
Chris Cate: What would you like to see FSU alumni cheering for in the same way that they cheer for the football team?
John Thrasher: Well, our football team’s going to be pretty good this year. Let me just say that on the record. I’m very proud of what Coach Fisher’s done and his assistant coaches. He obviously attracts some great players, so football’s going to be great. By the way, additional sports … Our student athletes, both men and women, are doing [00:08:30] extraordinarily well, very proud of them from an academic standpoint as well as their performances on the field. But I want Florida State to be known as a place where young people can come and go after their hopes and dreams. This is a place where they’ll be nurtured, where they’ll be cared for. They’ll feel like they’re part of a family and at the end of their time here they’ll be able to go out and, like I say, pursue their hopes and dreams, be that further education or a job. [00:09:00] Jobs are very important to our governor as we know, and we agree with that and we want them to be able to flourish. That’s what I hope for when they leave here.
Chris Cate: When you earned your Bachelor’s degree from FSU it was a very different time. You went on to serve in the army in Germany and Vietnam before returning for law school. For today’s graduates, what advice do you have for them about how to choose a career and then how do you encourage them to make a career here in Florida?
John Thrasher: Yeah, hard to do, hard to do early on. I was 17 when I [00:09:30] started FSU and I really didn’t know what I was going to be doing. The military, to be honest with you, helped me a great deal, not only in maturing but kind of in focusing what I wanted to do and that’s why I came back to law school. Then I knew I wanted to do something in government, maybe practice law some but I just had this desire to want to do something in government, hoping to give back. I don’t think it … Some people absolutely know what they want to do. They want to be a doctor or they want to be an engineer or they want to be a lawyer [00:10:00] or they want to be an educator or whatever. They know that. That’s the good thing but if you don’t know it, you shouldn’t be fearful of exploring different opportunities when you get out.
Degrees at Florida State give people an opportunity in my opinion to think critically, to solve complex problems and to communicate. Those are three fundamental things we try to teach across the board. Employers tell me that those are the kind of traits that they’re looking for when they go out and hire somebody. Not necessarily in a specific area but [00:10:30] can they think, can they solve problems and can they communicate. We think we’re doing that here.
Chris Cate: What advice would you have for a graduate who wants to work in politics?
John Thrasher: You know, giving back is something but establish yourself first. Establish yourself in whatever area you’re in whether it’s being a lawyer or whether it’s being a real estate person or something else. Establish yourself. Establish your base in your community. [00:11:00] Give back to the community. Work on civic programs, civic organizations that are involved in the community. Be involved in your children’s lives, those things, particularly in their school as they’re growing up. Once you’ve got that base, then decide if politics is for you because it’s not for everybody. It’s a very jealous profession in terms of time commitment and it takes you away from other things [00:11:30] but it’s very rewarding in the sense that you are making a difference I think, if you do it for the right reasons.
Chris Cate: I have four more questions and the questions broadly about Florida that I ask every guest. The first one is, who is a Florida leader that you admire? It could be someone that is still active today or someone from Florida history but who is a Floridian that you admire?
John Thrasher: I’ve had the opportunity to work with Reubin Askew who was one of our great governors. Many people consider him one of the best governors we had. [00:12:00] He came to Florida State. I got to know him here even a little bit when I became president. He’s somebody who I admire from the standpoint of his compass that always pointed north. He knew where he wanted to go. Another dear friend is Jeb Bush. I had the chance to work with him very closely when I was in the legislature as speaker and he was governor. His focus on the State of Florida was enormous I think, in terms of education [00:12:30] reform and getting us in a direction that I think has made a difference in particularly our K-12 education system.
Rick Scott’s been a great leader in Florida. His focus on jobs and making sure that everybody has an opportunity to pursue their hopes and dreams and if they get a job, that starts that. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around him. Had a bunch of other friends that are in my life that have made a difference, from the military to practicing law. [00:13:00] I’m proud of the relationships I’ve had. They’ve all been helpful to me as I’ve moved along my path in life.
Chris Cate: Where is a favorite Florida location for you to visit? It can be a city, a restaurant, a beach, kind of all the above?
John Thrasher: We love St. Augustine Beach. We had a place there for a long time when I was in the Senate. We really love St. Augustine Beach but we love our little place in Green Cove Springs where we have a house still out in Clay County. We raised [00:13:30] our children in that county. Those two areas are very, very important to us. We have a house up in the mountains near Highlands, North Carolina and we love going up there. Those are kind of our retreats when we get a chance.
Chris Cate: My next question is usually, what’s your favorite Florida sports team but I think I know what you’re going to say on that. I want to tweak that question a little bit and ask you about your role on the College Football Playoff Board of Managers. What’s something you think the playoffs have done well and what [00:14:00] improvements would you still like to see?
John Thrasher: I think the four-team playoff is a positive thing for college football. I think it creates a lot of energy, creates a lot of interest. There are people who want to expand it and do different things but right now it seems to be working pretty well. We meet once a year in person and we have telephone conferences throughout the year. It’s rewarding to be on that with nine other university presidents from around the country. I think the involvement of presidents in that [00:14:30] playoff is a positive thing. I’m not saying if you just left it to the athletic folks it would be a bad thing, but I think having presidents involved, particularly understanding the academic side of the student athlete and the concerns that are built around that and making sure that they’re taken care of in a positive way academically as well as through their sports programs is a very positive thing. I think that Board looks at that very closely.
Chris Cate: Any chance you’d like to see it go to eight [00:15:00] teams?
John Thrasher: No. Not right now, no, no.
Chris Cate: I had to ask as a football fan. Last question. What is a Florida person, place or thing that you think deserves more positive attention? What’s something in Florida that maybe is not getting the attention?
John Thrasher: I think that the one thing that I would always look at that we need to uplift and reward is our veterans in the State of Florida. We’ve tried to emphasize that here at Florida State by creating programs that are responsive [00:15:30] to the young people who come back from the military service. Creating an environment for them to do the things that they want to do. They become great leaders. Uplifting our veterans and their families is an important thing I think for all of us. We should never lose sight of the fact that so many of the great freedoms that we have in this country are a result of the work of our veterans. We want to honor them and lift them up every chance we get.
Chris Cate: Excellent. Thanks so much for sharing that and thanks so much for being on the show.
John Thrasher: Great. Thank [00:16:00] you. I appreciate it.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listing to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, like Apple podcast, Stitcher or Google play music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy and media relations assistance. [00:16:30] We also have our own in-house created research teams. Look us up at saltermitchellpr.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.