St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

UF picks tough leader with laid-back style

Published October 9, 2003

GAINESVILLE - James Bernard Machen, the University of Utah president who rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and prefers to be called "Bernie," will be the next leader of the University of Florida.

The UF board of trustees on Wednesday voted unanimously for Machen after he and two other finalists spent the day interviewing with board members, faculty and students.

"We are a bit overtaken by the moment," Machen said as his wife, Chris, fought back tears at a news conference. "This is something we are very proud of."

Machen, 59, has an unassuming style for a university administrator. He often wears blue jeans to work and dislikes being called "president." Friends say he rarely backs down from a fight.

At Utah, Machen (pronounced Match-in) waged a fierce battle with the state attorney general to keep guns off his campus. He won when a judge ruled in favor of his ban.

That leadership style is one of the attributes that most impressed UF's trustees. Machen beat out William Jenkins, president of the Louisiana State University System, and Richard H. Herman, provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"I think the person I want to be behind as he charges up that hill is Bernie Machen," said Dianna Morgan, the board's vice chairwoman. "You just get the feeling that there's nothing we can't do."

Machen and his wife, a former nurse, had their suitcases packed Wednesday night as they waited for the board's vote. After being told of his selection, the couple phoned his parents in Alabama, their three grown children and left word for his bosses in Utah.

"You won't have any dull moments with Bernie," said Nolan Karras, chairman of the Utah Board of Regents, which hired Machen in 1997. "I was hopeful he would finish his career here. But I understand. When you get a good one, someone's always trying to steal him away."

Machen leaves behind a legacy of financial stability at the Utah campus, which has 28,000 students. He guided the Salt Lake City school through the 2002 Winter Olympics and moved to freeze enrollment after budget cuts threatened the school's missions.

But Machen, a football fan, also is leaving the university men's basketball program on three years' probation. In 1998, the team played for the national championship.

Machen is popular on campus, particularly among students. He spends considerable time just walking around - sometimes uninvited into fraternity houses.

"Oh, maaaaaan!" said Utah student body president Adrian Johnson when told of Machen's departure. "I'm happy for him, but at the same time I'm really bummed."

Wednesday's vote was not a surprise, given his earlier endorsement from a UF search committee and his experience at large public research institutions.

Machen was provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan and an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, two of the top public schools in the nation.

He took the presidency at Utah five years ago. Though much smaller than UF, which has 49,000 students, Utah has a Division I sports program, a medical school and a law school. He is only the second non-Mormon president at Utah.

Machen holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, along with a dental degree. His selection puts at least a temporary halt to Florida's recent trend of hiring politicians to run its universities.

UF, generally regarded as one of the top 25 public universities in the nation, is the only school in Florida in the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of the top 62 research institutions in the United States and Canada. Its goal is to become a top 10 university.

Machen said he was attracted to UF because of the caliber of its faculty and students, its size and complexity and its drive toward excellence.

"It's what someone like me, after 28 years, would like to be a part of," he said.

As the UF board gathered to make a decision Wednesday, students and employees gathered at the University Hotel and Conference Center, where the board was meeting.

"He stated he's going to be out on campus. He's going to be visible," said graduate student Clayton Archey, 23, who attended a question-and-answer session with Machen. "It's something students really can appreciate."

Faculty, some of whom were angry at the rapid pace of the search, were less impressed with Machen after meeting with him.

Visibly exhausted from the whirlwind three days, Machen was uncharacteristically short on specifics and avoided questions about the faculty union.

"That's not what we need right now," said John Mecholsky, a member of the UF Faculty Senate steering committee.

The Machens were introduced to the public at a posh reception Wednesday night at the Samuel P. Harn Museum. More than 100 people toasted the school's 11th president, greeting him with extended applause as he walked into the foyer. Alberta, a school mascot, gave him a hug.

Machen will fly this morning on the school's plane to Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Jeb Bush and his top staff before heading back to Utah to host a 100-person fundraising dinner at the presidential mansion.

"The impact on the state is obviously huge," said Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, who was in town for the museum party. "This is one of our top-tier universities and it's reknowned around the world."

UF's nine-month presidential search produced 11 finalists, including two women and one Hispanic man, who interviewed with the search committee this week. None of the three internal candidates, including provost David Colburn, made the final cut.

Machen was first contacted by UF in the summer. He met with the search committee chairman several times over the next few months.

"We're not just selecting a president," said Roland Daniels, a Gainesville car dealer and trustee. "We're selecting our future."

Machen will earn up to $700,000 annually in salary and benefits. In return, the school wants a commitment of eight to 10 years, a tenure that would far exceed the average length for a university president.

"This is it," Machen said. "I never aspired to be a university president. So I'm in extra innings."

He will replace retiring president Charles Young, the longtime UCLA chancellor who came to Florida in 1999 after UF's last search fell apart. Young replaced John Lombardi, who headed UF for 10 years.

"I think it was an excellent choice," Young said. "If I were to make a choice, it would be the same."

Young, 71, will remain through January, when Machen expects to take over.

Manny Fernandez, a trustee and search committee chairman, noted that Machen would add a new chapter after Lombardi, who was well-known around campus for driving a red pickup truck.

"We've gone from the red pickup of John Lombardi to the Harley of Bernie Machen," he said.

James Bernard Machen

James Machen, 59, a former pediatric dentist, took the top job at the University of Utah in 1998, overseeing a school with 28,000 students. Though much smaller than UF, which has 49,000 students, Utah has a Division I sports program (the 1998 basketball team played for the national championship), a medical school and a law school.

Before Utah, Machen (pronounced Match-in) was provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of Michigan, one of the nation's best public universities. He also was an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Even while rising up the ladder at Carolina and Michigan, Machen kept a private practice specializing in the treatment of handicapped children.

Machen received his D.D.S. from Vanderbilt University. He has an M.S. from St. Louis University and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Iowa. He served two years in the U.S. Army at the Institute of Dental Research at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Machen does not particularly like being called president, preferring "Bernie" instead. He rides a chrome-decked "Utah Red" Harley-Davidson motorcycle and joined the Salt Lake County Hogs Club. While he was provost at Michigan, he turned down the offer of a Buick sedan for a company car, opting instead for a Ford pickup.

Machen and his wife, Chris, have three grown children.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.