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Talking tough in UF's hot seat

High expectations greet the new president, who has goals of his own - such as diversity - for which he aims to crack the whip undeterred.

By RON MATUS
Published August 30, 2004

GAINESVILLE - The high-ranking administrator knows he's on the hot seat.

He has just told University of Florida president Bernie Machen that two of the three finalists for a dean's job are "pretty light hitters." The third is an internal candidate, a white male.

"Very capable," the administrator says.

Machen is not happy. He has warned administrators that all job searches must be done with an eye toward diversity. This one, he suspects, has been rigged.

Without a strong pool of candidates, "you could make a duck look good," Machen says.

He tells the administrator he wants the names of every member of the search committee. He is ready to scrap the search and start over.

This is the other side of Bernie Machen (pronounced MATCH-in), who arrived at UF in January with a warm and fuzzy reputation. People buzzed about his easy manner with students, his ability to connect with alumni, his affection for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

That's not the Machen now seated in the president's office.

When the entire Gator nation is expecting you to produce miracles, you'd better be tough.

Machen, 60, won't be officially sworn in as UF's 11th president until Sept. 10, but he already has spent seven months in a whirlwind.

On this day, he will welcome a new rabbi to town, threaten to personally settle a feud between the on-campus hospital and medical school, deal with Republicans upset about rock bands using the O'Connell Center, answer questions about a new set of college rankings, meet with a diversity committee, visit with a former UF president and pose on his Harley for a library poster.

And, oh yeah, there's the thing Machen was hired to do: Make UF one of the 10 best public universities in the country.

All in all, a typical day.

With 48,000 students, UF is the nation's fourth-largest school. It is often ranked among America's top 25 public universities, with solid academic programs, brainy undergraduates and stellar athletics.

But to join the elite, to be as good as the Berkeleys and UCLAs, the Penn States and Michigans, UF will need much more: more faculty, better faculty, better-paid faculty. More graduate students. More money from alumni. And, in Machen's estimation, more African-Americans and Hispanics.

It must get more in a state that gives less: Florida ranks near the bottom in per capita funding for higher education.

There are other hurdles, too.

Machen arrives in the midst of a revamped higher education system that has yet to establish its boundaries and powers. In the vacuum, some wonder whether UF will continue as the state's flagship university, or whether legislative delegations far beyond Gainesville will funnel future projects to up-and-comers such as the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.

On his own campus, Machen faces a stunningly high level of distrust among faculty toward administration, a fact confirmed this month by a survey Machen himself commissioned.

The new president seems confident.

If the people already here can't do the job, he'll bring in new people. If the faculty want more power, he's ready to share some of his. And on touchier issues, such as diversity, he intends to personally crack the whip.

"It's 2004, for God's sake," Machen says. "I'm not too patient about this."

It is football season again. And the folks at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, UF's politically connected agriculture school, aren't happy about the new seating arrangements at the stadium.

Machen wants new rules that are likely to limit how many seats IFAS leaders get in the prestigious president's box. With only 400 seats available, Machen wants to spread the wealth.

Richard Jones, IFAS's interim vice president, makes his case for more seats, reminding his boss that IFAS is a big school that brings in a lot of money.

Sorry, Machen says, the rules are different now.

Machen is good at saying no. He gets a lot of practice.

On this morning, between meetings with administrators, Machen scans e-mails and listens to his Blackberry buzz with new messages. He is by turns funny, irreverent and steely-eyed serious.

He calls the new U.S. News & World Report college rankings "a rip."

He laughs at e-mails from Republicans upset that a Democratic-leaning group is using the O'Dome for a fundraising concert. Their convoluted argument accuses UF of somehow discriminating against foreign nationals.

Foreign nationals?

"They couldn't give a rat's," he pauses, "patoot."

Doug Barrett, UF's vice president for health affairs, tells Machen that a dispute is heating up between the hospital and the med school. Machen says unless the issue is settled, he's going to "crash" the next hospital board meeting.

"The last thing they want is for me to settle it," he says. "I'll cut the baby in half."

Machen refers to himself as "the accidental president." There is truth to the joke.

Earlier in life, he was a dentist, fixing teeth for children with autism, cerebral palsy and spina bifida.

He taught dentistry for a while, then moved into administration, first at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then at the University of Michigan, where he became dean of the dentistry school. When the president needed somebody to temporarily fill in as provost, the university's chief academic officer, Machen reluctantly agreed.

Then the president was fired, and Machen was asked to stay. He ended up liking it.

"It's like you can't go back to the farm," he says.

In 1997, the University of Utah offered Machen its presidency. He thought it would be an interesting challenge and headed out West.

Six years later, UF called. After Machen was selected, search officials said he was their first and only choice.

His reward: a $375,000 base salary, and perks, bonuses and other compensation that could eventually bring his pay package up to nearly $700,000 annually.

But with big money come big expectations.

During the search process, Machen impressed almost everyone with his academic heft and down-to-earth charm.

"I thought that was the perfect combination for Florida," said Manny Fernandez, the UF trustee who headed the search.

Machen's personality is a sharp contrast to his predecessors'.

John Lombardi pushed UF higher in the national rankings, but his intellectual arrogance - the Gainesville Sun cartoonist liked to draw him with a giant, bulging head - rubbed many the wrong way. His replacement, former UCLA president Charles Young, had a detached, almost lofty air.

Both men loved football, which played well with fans and alumni. Machen says he likes football - he was captain of his high school team - but won't go to every home game, let alone the out-of-towners.

There's too much to do.

UF will "have to make some adjustments," he says matter-of-factly.

It's not that Machen goes looking for fights. It's just that he doesn't avoid them.

Consider what happened at the University of Utah, when the Utah attorney general and the state's gun lobby challenged the university's refusal to allow guns on campus. Utah is a gun-loving state, but Machen still took the matter to court - and won.

When he left for UF, his staff gave him a replica of a six shooter.

In Gainesville, the professors are in a foul mood.

Past UF presidents either ignored faculty input, or worse, promised to share power and didn't. Meanwhile, UF faculty salaries rank near the bottom when compared to similar universities.

Throw in a drawn-out showdown over the future of the faculty union, and it's no wonder tensions between faculty and administration are said to be at historic highs.

Machen has moved quickly to win support, but in this case, not by busting chops.

"Ultimately," he says, "the faculty has to tell me what to do."

He commissioned a survey to gauge faculty sentiment. He promised raises and delivered.

The 4 percent raises, funded through a tuition increase, are the largest since 1990. And Machen says there's more to come: This week, he'll announce a $150-million fundraising campaign to boost faculty pay.

"He's basically created a lot of optimism," said Otto Johnston, a longtime professor of Germanic and Slavic studies.

But doubts linger. The results of the faculty survey, released last week, show feelings are more bruised than Machen could have imagined.

Only a third of the 1,639 respondents said administration decisions were fair. Barely one in six said communication was good.

Only 8 percent said pay was "in line with the times."

Much of the suspicion is based on the past, but the festering union struggle is a "huge source of frustration," said Kim Emery, the faculty union president.

On that issue, Machen has sided - politely - against the union.

In May, members of UF's Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations approached Machen with an idea: How about an annual "faculty reading initiative," where faculty are encouraged to read a specific book to spark a dialogue.

The first selection: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, by Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Good idea, Machen said.

Then he took it further, scheduling a symposium on the book to coincide with his inaugural.

Machen is "a breath of fresh air," says law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, the center's director.

If public comments are any measure, diversity is Machen's biggest passion as president. He says repeatedly that UF can't be a great university unless it's a diverse university.

Many like what they hear.

"I'm impressed," says professor Kenneth Nunn, who resigned as the law school's associate dean in 2000 to protest a racially charged atmosphere at the school. "That's the most important thing: to make sure the message comes from the top."

Turning things around won't be easy.

UF is one of the state's least diverse universities, with 3 percent African-American faculty and 7.5 percent African-American enrollment.

It also has a recent history of racial tensions. Lombardi was nearly fired in 1997 after calling the former head of the state university system, who was African-American, an "Oreo." In 2001, a mediator reported the law school was seething with racial intolerance.

Even the book suggestion generated heat. E-mails to Machen suggest 80 percent love the idea and 20 percent "think I'm an idiot," Machen says.

He's not deterred.

Behind the scenes, he has told his deans and vice presidents that they need to do a better job with minority hiring, pronto.

"First of all, you say, "We're watching.' Second of all, "We're keeping score,"' he said.

Then the kicker: "It goes on your evaluation."

In the afternoon, Machen goes over his schedule with Paul Robell, UF's vice president for development.

Meet with the UF Foundation, the university's fundraising arm. Meet with donors in New York City. Have dinner with an Exxon Mobil exec.

After Machen says okay to all of them, Robell reminds him about Homecoming in November.

"I'm not riding in that damn parade," Machen says grumpily.

"It's a big deal," Robell replies.

When Machen asks what he would have to do, Robells tells him he rides in a car and "waves like the queen."

Machen looks both grouchy and amused.

"I hate it," he says.

He feigns more exasperation, then says he's not going to the Florida-Florida State football game.

Robell appears to catch his breath.

"God love you," he says.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 30, 2004, 00:53:12]


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