Wetherell's grand plan wins over FSU faculty

T.K. Wetherell had doubters when he was hired to lead the school. But his goal to add 200 professors is changing minds.

Published October 8, 2006

TALLAHASSEE ­— Plenty of people questioned whether T.K. Wetherell, the Florida State University football player-turned-politico, had the academic heft to lead his alma mater.

Faculty balked four years ago when FSU’s trustees, led by Wetherell’s former lobbying partner, chose him as the school’s 13th president.

“We can do better,” one professor, Sharon Maxwell, said shortly before he was selected.

But with an expensive new program aimed at vaulting FSU into the

Pathways Q & A


  • What is Pathways of Excellence?


A university-wide research push that involves the hiring of faculty, the creation of more doctoral programs and improvements in existing ones.

Over five years FSU will approve the hiring of 200 tenure or tenure-track “superstars” from across the country. They will work with existing faculty in about three dozen interdisciplinary research areas called “clusters.”

  • What will it cost?

Initial estimates say anywhere between $100- and $150-million. The money will come from state and private dollars.

  • Why is FSU doing this?

To improve its doctoral programs so that FSU ultimately graduates 400 doctoral students a year instead of the current 300; to improve the quality of faculty research and bring in more federal research dollars; to get into the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of 62 nationally lauded universities.

  • A few of FSU’s Research Clusters

The History of Text Technology: Faculty will study how technological advances in communication — from written manuscript to print and text messages — affect literature and culture.

Extreme Event: Modeling and Extended Forecasts: Meteorology and oceanography faculty will look at ways to better simulate and predict major weather phenomenon like hurricanes and tornadoes.

Integrating Genotype and Phenotype: Eight faculty members in areas ranging from molecular genetics to evolution will work to better understand how the genetic code works, and what it means for the prevention of disease, aging, and our interaction with the environment.

Growth, Processing and Characterization of Advanced Materials: Engineers, chemists, physicists and computational scientists will study the design, processing and use of new materials like carbon nanotubes — efficient heat conductors used in electronics, optics and other fields.

national spotlight, Wetherell is winning over  the naysayers who feared he would care more about the football team than what goes on in classrooms.

At a cost expected to exceed $100-million, Wetherell says he wants to hire dozens of top professors to do cutting-edge research and create more doctoral programs.

He hopes that will accomplish something none of his predecessors could: Get FSU into the prestigious Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of 62 top schools. The only Florida school currently in the group is the University of Florida.

“If we get to the AAU, great,” Wetherell said. “And even if not, we’re still going to be doing a hell of a lot better. This will have the most lasting impact if we can do it right.”

The plan, dubbed “Pathways of Excellence,” calls for the hiring of 200 professors regarded as “superstars” in their fields.

They will work with existing faculty in about three dozen interdisciplinary “clusters,” all of them dreamed up by faculty and endorsed by a committee of professors.

Each cluster will consist of five to eight faculty members who do research and teaching centered around a common theme, such as genetics or extreme weather events.

The goal is to bring together great minds to tackle societal problems and scientific mysteries.

“It’s not like everyone wants to live in North Florida, but I am getting e-mails from all over the world from professors who want to come here and be part of this,” said English professor Gary Taylor, director of a cluster that will study how changes in communication have affected literature and culture.

Universities often talk about going after top-notch professors. But few have been so daring as to go after 200 of them in five years, as FSU plans. Harvard administrators are just starting to talk about a proposal to hire 75 faculty members for science research.

“The best way to make a public university a significant player nationally and internationally is to cluster-hire,” Taylor said. “It’s not like these top people are looking at want ads all the time. So you have to be able to tell them you’re going to be part of a team that the university is really investing in. That’s an enormously powerful recruiting tool.”

FSU officials estimate that the initiative will cost more than $100-million in private and taxpayer dollars.

Some current FSU faculty members say they worry that part of the money will be taken out of their salaries or department budgets, said Faculty Senate president James Cobbe, an economics professor.

Others say they fear that the clusters will be mostly science- and technology-related, leaving the humanities out of the limelight.

Wetherell insists the plan is about adding positions, not taking them away. He notes that the English department is leading one of the first clusters approved.

And he concedes that budget changes could be necessary, but promises they will come out of the administration and business side ­— not academic departments.

He and other Pathways proponents say any sacrifices now will be worth the prestige that comes later.

“This is one of the most ambitious and innovative hiring initiatives anywhere in the country,” said longtime FSU biology professor W. Ross Ellington, who is associate vice president for research.

“Potentially,” Ellington said, “it will have a transforming effect on the university.”

It could also define Wetherell’s tenure.


Wetherell, 60, earned three degrees from FSU, where he starred as a wide receiver and defensive back in the 1960s. He worked as an administrator at Daytona Beach Community College, then was named president of Tallahassee Community College in 1995.

But when Wetherell unpacked his boxes inside the president’s office at FSU in early 2003, he was known first and foremost as one of Florida’s smoothest politicians.

A conservative Democrat who prefers weekends on his rural family estate over city living, he was a state representative for 12 years before becoming House speaker in 1990.

In 2001 he joined Southern Strategy Group, a powerful lobbying firm headed by former House Speaker John Thrasher. Around the capital, everyone called him T.K.

Wetherell was great at charming people with his easy demeanor and his sense of humor. As a legislator, he grew tight with the most powerful of his fellow lawmakers, including former Senate President Jim King.

But many faculty members held Wetherell’s political success against him, saying his lack of experience with a major research institution would hinder FSU as it tried to boost its academic profile.

Supporters countered that Wetherell’s political savvy, and his success at getting millions in state money for FSU, made him the ideal person to lead one of Florida’s largest and oldest public universities.

“Public universities are political institutions,” Taylor said. “University presidents increasingly are politically connected people who can get resources. And good leaders are people who recognize they aren’t equally astute at everything, who nonetheless surround themselves with people who are good at the things they are not good at.”

Wetherell is doing just that with Pathways.

Like a quarterback who makes sure his receivers get the ball, Wetherell is telling professors he will get them the resources they need to make FSU an academic powerhouse.

And he is making them part of the process.

He wants faculty to write job descriptions for new hires. He wants them to take part in recruitment and searches.
“This is all theirs,” Wetherell said. “To get the faculty to totally buy into it, you’ve got to let them drive the train. My job is to find them money.”

Wetherell said a forthcoming $1-billion capital campaign will bring in private cash, but he will seek help from the Legislature as well.

“The state spent $200-million to get the Burnham Institute and $350-million to get Scripps,” said Wetherell, referring to state money that helped attract the two California research companies to Florida. “We’re not asking for anywhere near that, but we’re going to be getting the top people in their fields.”

If the past is any indication, Wetherell will get the money he needs.

At Tallahassee Community College, he got $40-million in state dollars to kick off a major construction boom. As House speaker in 1991, he helped get millions for the buildings that wrap around FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium.
Last year, legislators gave FSU and UF $37-million to share to hire top scholars.

Cobbe, the FSU Faculty Senate president, said professors like the idea of hiring more tenured faculty, given the growth in FSU’s student population, which now exceeds 40,000. But they already complain that their salaries are low compared with other state universities, and they worry the new hires will take away from future salary increases and department budgets.

“Everybody is in favor of making the university a better university,” he said. “Whether the cluster-hire approach is the best way to go, some people would question that.”

Wetherell says he is convincing professors, slowly but surely.

“I think the faculty, every day that goes by, buy into it a little bit more,” he said. “I walked out pretty far on that limb with this. But it seems sturdier now.’’

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.