The contrast between Florida State University (FSU) pre-COVID and today is remarkable. Pre-pandemic, students studied under the campus’ live oaks, packed College Town and, on game days, joined tens of thousands of others in the traditional war chant cheering on their beloved Seminoles.
Today, the campus sits quietly. College Town is nearly deserted. Football games, not cancelled due to COVID, have allowed only a limited number of spectators and no tailgating. Its like a pandemic fog has settled over the campus, muting the vibrancy of the college experience.
In the midst of the pandemic, FSU President John Thrasher announced his retirement. He will remain until a new president is selected.
He insists he is not leaving “a ship on fire,” but rather a great university poised to soon emerge from this fog. Under his tenure, FSU fought its way into the top 20 of the country’s public universities, and he is confident students at FSU will soon enjoy the full benefits of attending the elite institution again.
“I think the vaccine is a game changer,” Thrasher told The Capitolist in an exclusive interview this week. “Even this coming spring, we expect to have more face-to-face classes than we had this past fall. People come here for the entire experience.
“The social aspects of it, and the great programs we have…just our environment on campus I think is conducive to the kids wanting to come here and learn and stay here four years before moving on to their next chapter of their life. I’m very optimistic about their future,” Thrasher said.
While classrooms and lecture halls will welcome students again, many will still prefer remote learning, Thrasher explained.
He expects occupancy in the residence halls to reach 70 percent this spring semester in comparison to 67 percent this fall, and he believes a new residence hall is needed. Sites are already being scouted.
In 2019, FSU welcomed its largest freshman class ever with over 6,800 students. Then COVID hit in the spring 2020, moving classes to remote instruction. When fall semester began, FSU welcomed between 6000 and 6,200 students, with some face-to-face instruction but many classes accessed remotely. Thrasher expects summer enrollment to be down again but then rebound to over 6,200 again in the fall of 2021.
Thrasher acknowledges that, of course, COVID has adversely affected the university’s finances. He said FSU’s approach was to preserve its resources as much as possible and it enacted a hiring freeze for staff and faculty.
The pandemic has also negatively impacted the state coffers, which fund the Florida’s university system. Lawmakers are expecting a $5.4 billion shortfall through 2021 and incoming Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said he might consider a tuition hike for the state’s 11 universities.
Thrasher said he will not advocate for a tuition increase, but can see both sides of the debate.
U.S. News and World Reports ranked the Florida University system the best in the country for the last two years. Florida also has the second lowest tuition in the country and has not had a tuition increase in about ten years.
“You know, right now, there’s so many families that are hurting in the state and, so even if the legislature gave us the authority, I think a lot of us would be reluctant to put more costs on the backs of our students and their families,” he said.
“In the past, the legislature has really helped our university system without tuition increases in terms of national rankings and has invested in the universities that are moving up in the rankings and allowed us to hire more faculty through different programs. I know the governor feels that (the university system’s top ranking) is a great asset to us from an economic standpoint. And I think our universities can be a part of the economic recovery for the state by the talent pipeline that we put out,” Thrasher said.
Unlike academics, Florida State’s athletics supports itself with no additional money from the legislature.
The pandemic has kicked FSU football while its down.
“COVID has certainly had an impact on us, no question about it, but we’re working through that.”
“We’ll weather it,” Thrasher promised. “Football is the driving force behind most of our intercollegiate men’s and women’s sports. It’s important we get it right and I have every confidence in Coach (Mike) Norvell. I know he’s the right person for this job. He’s working hard. I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to come back strong.”
Despite the pandemic setbacks, Thrasher said, “I don’t feel like I’m leaving with the ship on fire. I think we’ve made a lot of progress and accomplished a lot of our goals, but you know, there’s always room for improvement. And I know the next president will build on the foundation that we left.”
“I’m very optimistic about the future of Florida State and very much appreciate having had the opportunity to be the 15th President.”