Editorial: After the search

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.

If there’s something nice to say about Gov. Rick Scott’s latest effort to influence the state university system, it’s that he has a flair for the dramatic. His sense of timing, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

Trustees, faculty and staff spent more than six months on the search to replace President Bernie Machen, who announced in June that was retiring by the end of 2013. UF ended its presidential search late Tuesday at Scott’s request. Now the Gator Nation must make sure that the governor delivers on his promise to the university.

UF’s explanation for suspending the search was that Scott and Board of Trustees Chairman David Brown asked Machen to stay to realize a vision of making UF into a top 10 public university. The announcement came just four days before a new university president was expected to be chosen.

It’s a clumsy way to handle UF’s most important decision. It’s imperative for the university to make the best of this late turn of events, pressuring Scott to deliver on his promise by leading state lawmakers along with him.

Ever since Machen arrived at UF in 2004, he’s talked about the university ranking among the nation’s premier public institutions. But that effort has been thwarted by a lack of funding.

It’s a point of pride that tuition at Florida’s state universities ranks among the nation’s lowest, but it’s a badge of shame that university funding in the state is 30 percent below the national average.

Machen has long sought the power to raise tuition to higher levels, perhaps a realization that it was a more likely possibility than increased state funding. Five years of budget cuts have proven that case.

It finally looked last year like he’d achieved his goal last year with the Legislature’s passage of the so-called preeminence bill. The measure would have allowed UF and Florida State University to seek higher tuition increases

for meeting certain accountability standards.

But Scott vetoed the measure. Ever since, he’s repeatedly talked about his desire to keep tuition low. So UF and the rest of the state university system have heeded his call by pledging to forgo tuition hikes this year, as long as the state ponies up the equivalent cash in new state funding.

It’s unclear how Machen’s decision to stay affects that deal. The reality is that UF has a different case to make than other state universities. It has the best reputation, the most research and the only realistic shot in the near term of being ranked among the nation’s best public universities.

Scott enters the last two years of his first term with dismal approval ratings. If he wants to earn a second term, a good place to start is helping UF to achieve its goal of greatness. If he fails to deliver, the Gator Nation can make its displeasure known at the ballot box.

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