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UF chief wants state to back off

UF president Bernie Machen says the school won't join the top 10 unless the Legislature stops "meddling."

Published February 24, 2004


ST. PETERSBURG - The University of Florida will never become one of the nation's elite schools unless state lawmakers stop micromanaging it, UF president Bernie Machen said Monday.

Machen, who has been running UF for less than two months, said he was told when he was hired that state officials would give Florida universities more authority over their operations, including tuition policy.

So far, he said, that hasn't happened.

If the state doesn't follow through, UF will never be able to compete with elite schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley, said Machen, who was speaking to the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

"It's impossible," he said. "I don't think you can ever catch up. They are not going to park on the side of the road and wait for you."

UF, one of the largest schools in the nation with 49,000 students, is generally ranked among the nation's top 25 public universities. It has medical and law schools, a distinguished faculty, a premier sports program and a fanatical alumni base.

Machen, 59, the former president at the University of Utah, came to the Gainesville school Jan. 5. He previously served as second-in-command at the University of Michigan.

Machen said his bosses on the UF board of trustees have been clear about wanting to move their school into the nation's top 10. But he's not sure state leaders are willing to turn over the authority needed to make that happen.

Gov. Jeb Bush called that process "devolution" when he proposed it as part of his overhaul of Florida's higher education governance system three years ago. The idea was to push decisionmaking from the state to the most local level possible.

That's why each university now has a 13-member board of trustees. But lawmakers have so far refused to give up control over funding, including the right to set tuition.

UF currently has the lowest tuition among schools in the Association of American Universities, whose 62 members include the nation's top research institutions.

Machen said if UF was allowed to increase tuition more than other schools, few UF students would be hurt. The vast majority qualify for Bright Futures scholarships, which pay most or all of their tuition.

Phil Handy, chairman of the Florida Board of Education and a vocal proponent of devolution, did not return calls Monday.

MacKay Jimeson, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the governor supports giving schools flexibility.

"Under Gov. Bush, the universities have been provided with more autonomy than ever before," he said.

Machen acknowledged that "state meddling" isn't the only obstacle to UF gaining greater national prominence. He said the school also needs more state funding and to increase its endowment.

The university already has capped freshmen enrollment, part of an effort to limit growth at the undergraduate level.

Machen said UF expects 25,000 applications this year for about 5,000 freshmen seats.

"It's pretty intense competition," he said. "I've started getting letters from parents and alumni complaining about students not getting in."

[Last modified February 24, 2004, 01:31:08]

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