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UF faculty to Bush: You can't be a Gator

Published March 24, 2007


Former Gov. Jeb Bush prided himself on his education policies, and before leaving office set aside over $20-million to help the University of Florida attract top faculty and establish new research centers.

No matter. More than three dozen UF faculty members snubbed the Republican Party celebrity this week, killing a proposal to give him an honorary degree.

The faculty Senate voted 38-28 Thursday against the degree, a move that surprised UF president Bernie Machen and the UF trustees pushing for the honor.

Machen said the degree denial is "unprecedented" in UF history.

"I just think it was a horrible decision based upon some people that really don't know all the things Jeb Bush did for education, and especially for the University of Florida," Machen said Friday. "I don't know, I guess someone's trying to make some kind of a statement."

That "statement" creates an awkward situation for Machen, who is lobbying the Republican-dominated Legislature - many of them Bush supporters - for permission to charge undergraduates an extra $500 per semester.

"I haven't gotten any calls yet today," he said. "But I don't know what will happen."

Machen would use the additional revenue - $36-million a year when fully implemented - to improve undergraduate programs by hiring 200 additional faculty and 100 academic counselors. It's key in his bid to vault UF into the top 10 of public U.S. research universities.

Bush could not be reached Friday, but some longtime supporters were outraged.

"We name buildings after people who have questionable backgrounds," said former UF student body president Steve Uhlfelder, a Democrat and former state university system leader who practices law in Tallahassee.

Uhlfelder pointed out that UF's basketball arena is named after former university president Stephen C. O'Connell, who as Florida Supreme Court justice wrote the 1956 opinion to keep a black student from entering the UF law school.

Bush already has honorary degrees from institutions including St. Petersburg College and Polk Community College.

Five people recommended Bush get the UF degree, including Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the board that oversees Florida's 11 public universities. Among the standards for receiving an honorary degree from UF: "High distinction in public service."

Had the Senate approved it, the proposal would have gone to Machen and the UF trustees, whom Bush appointed when he was governor, for final approval.

Several other former governors including Reuben D. Askew have UF honorary degrees.

"But those honorary degrees came long after they left office," said faculty Senate member Kathleen Price, a law school professor who voted against Bush. "It seemed inappropriate to be putting the ex-governor on the list so soon after he left office."

She criticized his support for three new public medical schools in recent years, saying it "diluted" state resources for medical programs like UF's.

In higher education circles, Bush's greatest criticism came over his "One Florida" plan, which ended race-based admissions in state universities. Black enrollment dropped at UF and statewide after the change took effect, as critics predicted.

Machen raised black enrollment by instituting a scholarship program for first-generation college students.

Bush last year established a statewide program modeled after UF's success.

Machen said he's not giving up on making Bush a Gator.

"It would be to the betterment of the University of Florida to have that type of association with Jeb Bush."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or

[Last modified March 24, 2007, 02:00:10]

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