HIGHER EDUCATION

Some UF supporters worry Gov. Rick Scott crossed line to keep President Bernie Machen

 

There are concerns that lines may have been crossed in persuading the 68-year-old University of Florida president to postpone his retirement.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

News that Bernie Machen will remain president of the University of Florida has been widely regarded as a positive step for the school yearning for higher national prominence.

But some UF supporters and observers say they are concerned lines may have been crossed in persuading Machen, 68, to postpone his retirement.

Gov. Rick Scott and UF board of trustees chairman David Brown made the joint announcement Tuesday and Scott’s statement indicated he had actively helped keep Machen at UF.

"I have asked him to continue his service as president, and I look forward to working with him, the Board of Governors and the board of trustees on this effort to realize a new vision for higher education in Florida," Scott said.

That left some wondering whether the governor overstepped his authority. Hiring and firing university presidents is the role of each school’s board of trustees. The state’s Board of Governors signs off on hires and reappointments. Scott selects Board of Governors members.

"It seems to me to be rather odd and unusual that the governor would take a direct role of this sort in a search for a university president that is traditionally the province of the board of trustees and the faculty," said John Biro, president of UF’s faculty union chapter.

The attitude among UF faculty is "one of great uncertainty, great concern, and perhaps in some cases bordering on great alarm," Biro said.

It doesn’t help that details remain murky. Scott has refused to say when he spoke to Machen and what they talked about. Machen also refused an interview request.

But in a column he wrote exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times that can be read at tampabay.com/opinion and in Sunday’s Perspective section, Machen said he received assurances from the governor that UF would get the resources it needs to rise in national prominence.

"As you may have read in the news, UF was in the final stages of its search process for my successor last week when Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked me to remain at UF’s helm," Machen wrote. "He said he would give me his full support in helping UF join the ranks of the nation’s best public research universities."

The school longs to break the top 10 list, joining institutions like the University of Virginia, UCLA and the University of North Carolina. But first UF needs to reduce its student-to-teacher ratio and do more to support professors’ research, Machen wrote.

That takes money, which is where Machen and Scott have disagreed.

Last year, the governor vetoed a bill supported by Machen that would have allowed UF and Florida State University unlimited freedom to raise tuition.

This year, all of the state university presidents are asking Scott to support $118 million in new funding for the system on top of restoring $300 million cut last year. In turn, universities have agreed not to raise tuition, but UF and FSU leaders said this is separate from their efforts to obtain "pre-eminence" status.

Machen’s column indicates Scott has agreed to boost funding at UF. That could mean he will devote more tax dollars to UF and other state universities.

"Gov. Scott and I will be working on a plan for the proposed budget for next year with the goal of including substantial commitments that will improve the quality of our education and research programs and accelerate our climb up the rankings," Machen wrote.

Machen told the UF board of trustees in June that he intended to retire by the end of 2013, ending a nine-year tenure. The board launched a search to replace him, including appointing a committee of 23 stakeholders.

The search committee had planned to screen and interview applicants starting Thursday. They were to recommend finalists to the board of trustees on Friday, which would make a final selection Saturday.

Members of the search committee were just as surprised as everyone else to learn the whole thing was called off.

"I think as the week began we were all preparing to gather in Gainesville Thursday for interviews with a final group of candidates," said Dianna Morgan, a former chairwoman of the UF board of trustees.

Morgan said she doesn’t know when discussions between Scott and Machen occurred or what caused the change of heart. But she said UF is a stronger school with Machen at the helm.

"There was never a time that the board was not supportive of Bernie’s leadership," she said.

Although the school released a preliminary list of a couple of dozen applicants, trustees and members of the search committee had been assured that several strong candidates would apply at the end of the process. For example, the rumored front-runner, North Carolina State University chancellor Randy Woodson, never formally applied.

Woodson’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Interviewed by the Raleigh News & Observer on Thursday, Woodson avoided questions about whether he had been in contact with Florida officials.

"Thrilled to be at N.C. State," he said when asked.

Scott’s office didn’t respond when asked if he spoke with Woodson or any other contenders for the UF job.

Bob Graham, the former governor and senator, successfully led the effort for a constitutional amendment to establish the Board of Governors. The spirit of that initiative is undermined by Scott’s actions, he said.

"The decision on selection of university presidents is certainly a key part of the responsibility for the overall administration of the university system," he said. "Therefore, the fact that the governor became involved seems inconsistent with that constitutional amendment."

Graham said that when he was governor, universities occasionally asked him to help seal the deal with a chosen candidate. But exerting influence over the selection process itself is across the line, he said.

Both the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities said it is not customary for a governor to insert himself into a presidential search the way Scott did. But both stopped short of criticizing Scott, saying Machen’s strong support among the UF board of trustees was the strongest evidence of why he was asked to stay.

Tico Perez, who recently ended a seven-year tenure on the Board of Governors, said he was not bothered when he heard Scott helped persuade Machen to remain at UF.

"He’s a great president, the state is blessed to have him," Perez said, "and if Gov. Scott thought that was important and got involved in that process, I am always happy to have the governor of the state of Florida focused on the quality of higher ed."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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