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Morning Conversation: FSU President John Thrasher

Published: Dec. 18, 2020 at 11:01 AM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - WCTV’s Michael Hudak spoke to FSU President John Thrasher about the highs and lows during his time in charge of campus in this edition of the Morning Conversation.

In the video player above, you’ll find part one of the exclusive interview. Below, you’ll find the second half of the conversation, as well as transcribed questions and answers.

Hudak: You know what’s really been difficult for me this year, is taking a pause, taking a breath and truly appreciating the moment I’m in at that time. Which is why I’m excited to sit down and talk with you: to appreciate this moment at Westcott. This is such a beautiful campus. I was wondering — do you have a part of this campus that’s your favorite?

Thrasher: “I love this part. I love this part of campus. You know, I walk in here every morning. I’ve done it for six years now, and uh, to me there’s nothing like it. You know, I’m like you. I graduated from here many years ago. Undergraduate school and law school. My heart still beats when I walk in here.”

Hudak: You and I are not the only ones who notice how great this university is. For two consecutive years, FSU has been in the top 20 in national public universities. How was the university able to not only accomplish that, but also maintain it? And what does that ranking actually mean for the university?

Thrasher: “You know, when I got here we were 43 in the Nation, ranked U.S. news and world report. We’re now in the top-20, as you said, for the last two years. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of focus on making sure our students get the opportunities that they come here for, and that’s a world-class education. And I think we’re delivering at Florida State, in spite of some of the issues we’ve had and in spite of COVID for the last 9 months.”

Hudak: I want to tell you about the first time I ever saw you in person. It was Nov. 20, 2014, the same day as the shooting at Strozier Library. You said the doors of Strozier would open again the next morning, that the nation is going to be looking at how we respond. And you said “I hope ... I hope... They look at you. I hope they see what you are doing.” As a student, it was inspiring. It was just what we needed. What goes through your heart and your mind when you look back at the first month of your presidency?

Thrasher: “I’ll never forget getting the phone call at about 12:30 in the morning, a.m., and it was David Coburn, telling me that there’d been a shooting, to turn on the T.V. because it was on national television, and it was almost surreal. I couldn’t believe it. And then, I rearranged my flight schedule to get back, and uh, like you said, I got back to campus probably around 10 o’clock in the morning. And we held the vigil that night. And I told the students exactly what you said. People are watching this. We use this word ‘resilient’ a lot. We didn’t use it back then, but I can tell you that’s what made the difference. The students came together, we opened Strozier the very next morning, I just wanted us to get back to some normalcy, and let people know that something like this was not going to bring Florida State University down.”

Hudak: You’re the former chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, you were the Republican House Speaker from 1999 to 2000. You’ve got a lot of people in that party who support guns on campus, yet you have been so adamant in your opposition to guns on Florida college and university campuses, even with concealed-weapons licenses. Why have you remained so steadfast against it?

Thrasher: “I came here not as a Republican Legislature. I came here as a person who believed in Florida State University. So, to me, after researching the issue, and having some personal experience about it I might add before I ever became President, I just don’t believe guns make us safer on campus. So, it’s not a matter of ‘I’m opposed to the Second Amendment’ as some people have interpreted. Or, that ‘I’ve changed my views about that.’ I simply believe that bringing guns on campus, any more than bringing guns into the legislative process down the street from here, doesn’t make us safer. I don’t think it does, and therefore, I’ve opposed it.”

Hudak: You’ve been through many pivotal, great moments in this university as well. So, let’s play some word association: I’m going to say a phrase and you tell me what comes to mind.

2016 Orange Bowl victory against Michigan.

Thrasher: “I’ve got the football in my office. That was a great, comeback win for us in the fourth quarter. And to beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl was pretty significant for our team and for Coach Fisher.”

Hudak: 83% graduation rate.

Thrasher: “Amazing. It’s actually a little better than that in the six-year graduation rate. Our four-year graduation rate is now 74%.”

Hudak: FSU Softball National Championship 2018.

Thrasher: “Hahaaa. Lonni Alameda and her team are fantastic. She’s really a rockstar. Just a solid, solid coach.”

Hudak: I’ve seen firsthand how you’ve ridden the highs and lows with the students and faculty, emotionally and physically. You experienced the COVID-19 crisis first-hand because you and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 6. How would you describe your battle with COVID-19, what kind of symptoms did you face?

Thrasher: “Jean and I were both blessed not to have really severe symptoms, but we had some. She had a fever. I didn’t have any fever. I had a lot of congestion, a lot of fatigue. You hear about this loss of appetite, I did have a loss of appetite. I actually lost ten pounds, which I could afford to do. We weathered it pretty well. We weathered it pretty well and we’re doing really well now.”

Hudak: How will you handle the post-holiday COVID-19 risk? Are you concerned about students going home all over the place and then coming back to campus?

Thrasher: “Absolutely, we’re worried about it. So, the plan is going to be for those students who are coming back and staying on resident halls on campus, we’re going to test them all. We’re going to test them all before they move in. And we have the testing ability to do that, I might add, one of the best testing facilities I think anywhere in any university campus. We’re going to have a very robust communication effort, to communicate with our students to let them know, again, we can’t let our foot off the pedal. It’s still out there. Wearing masks. I’m not wearing one right now because you and I are outside and we’re six feet apart. Frankly, we are looking forward to having more face-to-face classes in the spring than we had in the fall.”

Hudak: Will this impact the university’s ability to offer quality education and life experience?

Thrasher: You know I talked to faculty members, our staff and students. And they feel good about it. A lot of these students have grown up doing things remotely. It’s different I think than it would’ve been if it were you or me doing it, perhaps, even when you were in school. I feel like our faculty have really risen to the occasion. They’ve enhanced their ability to convey the content of the courses, and I think the students are still benefitting from that.

Hudak: In September, you announced that FSU will begin its search for a new president and that you will be stepping down from your position as the president of the university when your successor is ready to take over. What went into that decision for you to move on, and what are you looking forward to in the next chapter of your life?

Thrasher: We felt it was good to start the process, it’s probably going to take until the end of the spring. I’m willing to stay, obviously subject to my board. Until then, I think it’s the right time. In a couple of days, I’ll be 77 years old. I think six and a half years was a good number, in fact, that’s about the average number for university presidents at public universities. I feel like we will have left the university a little better than we found it, and I look forward to seeing the next president take us to the next level.

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