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FSU Trustees Plan Counterpunch to Negative Press

January 12, 2015 - 6:00pm

Florida State University plans a massive public-relations effort to counter negative press that has painted the school throughout the past year as favoring athletics over academics.

Meanwhile, members of the university's board of trustees were advised Monday that the school will "vigorously" fight a lawsuit filed last week by a former student who says FSU failed to properly investigate her allegation of being sexually assaulted by star football player Jameis Winston.

To counteract the negative attention heaped on the school, the trustees agreed during a conference call to establish a list of positive bullet points that a new "speakers bureau" can use in addressing the media, schools and civic organizations across the state.

Trustee Andy Haggard, an attorney from Coral Gables who will head the new marketing effort, said the intention of the speakers will be "to really spread the word about what Florida State does, what Florida State has accomplished and what Florida State intends to do in the future."

Haggard, who is chairman of the FSU College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Council and is a past national chairman of the FSU Seminole Boosters, added, "We're a great university, and they need to know that."

The list of speakers will include members of the trustees, and Chairman Allan Bense said the focus of the speakers will not be on athletics.

"When I'm done with a speech I would say, until a couple of weeks ago -- or actually it's until tonight -- that, by the way, we're the defending national football champions," Bense said. "We talk about everything else but athletics."

Bense added that the impetus for "telling the world how great FSU is" was an unflattering editorial in the Los Angeles Times printed days before the school's football team played in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"We've taken a few shots, and I get it, I understand that, but I hope that in the next month or two we work hard on getting the message out about what a great university we are," Bense said.

During the past year the school has been hammered by a number of national media outlets about whether law enforcement properly handled numerous incidents involving Seminole football players and whether the university is focused on athletics over academics.

Most of the attention has focused on off-the-field incidents involving Winston, the school's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who announced last week he will skip his two remaining years of eligibility to enter the 2015 National Football League draft.

Winston's draft announcement came as the school was hit with a lawsuit that claims FSU violated a former student's federal Title IX rights by refusing to properly investigate her rape accusation against Winston. The quarterback has argued the December 2012 encounter was consensual. The board of trustees was named as the defendant in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

University President John Thrasher said the school has yet to be served with the lawsuit, but he expects that will change in the coming days and that the school is prepared to fight the charges.

"We will defend it vigorously," Thrasher told the trustees.

The day the lawsuit was filed Thrasher issued a statement in which he said, "Evidence will show that through its confidential Victim Advocate Program, FSU did everything the plaintiff asked for and that the assertions FSU shirked its Title IX obligations are false."

The woman is listed as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, which recounts the December 2012 incident and the handling of the case by the Tallahassee Police Department and FSU.

State Attorney Willie Meggs ended his investigation into the woman's charges by announcing there wasn't enough evidence to proceed.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding ruled last month that Winston couldn't be found in violation of the student conduct code after conducting a two-day hearing into the matter.

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