For a decade, Florida State University has courted the U.S. News rankings with singular focus and remarkable success. Our university has joined the big leagues, and it intends to keep moving up. That’s the job our trustees have set for FSU’s next president. What will it take?
Every single candidate for the job has the same answer: money — or, as one first round candidate put it, “money, money, money, money, money.”
But where is that money to be found?
For John Thrasher and his predecessors, the answer was straightforward: the Florida Legislature. And President Thrasher successfully procured the state funding we needed to make it to our present position.
Because of our new standing, though, the answer has changed. Now that FSU is a Top 20 university, the path forward goes beyond the Capitol.
In 2018-19, FSU’s $499 million in state appropriations made up 35% of its budget. The University of Florida got a lot more money from the state — $785 million — but that was only 23% of its revenue. FSU is an outlier in this regard. On average, the top 30 schools got just 15% of their revenue from state allocations. You can see a data visualization here.
To be clear, this does not mean that FSU gets too much money from the state. It means FSU’s revenue growth must come from other sources — especially federal research funding.
Few of us follow such budget details closely. This presidential search has been eye opening for everyone. As one trustee put it, “I should have paid more attention, and I should have known, that we were lacking severely… and for that I apologize.”
We’ve learned FSU needs to increase its research budget by about $250 million. That kind of money will not come from the state Legislature, where a $10-million increase is a big win. The Legislature has to balance the interests of many worthy and deserving institutions. It will not bankrupt everyone else to boost FSU.
What does all this mean for FSU’s presidential search?
The selection committee has done a great job. We have three excellent finalists, each a distinguished scientist with deep experience finding and managing hundreds of millions— even billions — in research funding. Each is an expert in exactly the work this job now requires.
The days of relying on Tallahassee connections as the most important moneymaker have come to an end. Our success is a tribute to the hard work of past presidents — and the taxpayers who support us. But the next step requires different tools and a different kind of leader.
FSU will always need great relationships at the Capitol, and we are thankful for the ongoing state support that will remain foundational to our university. But our next president will be the first with priorities beyond state appropriations.
John Thrasher was FSU’s last politician president. It’s a mark of his success that he will be followed by an academic who can harness our tremendous research potential.
Note: Originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat.