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."