TALLAHASSEE -- 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.