What would making the top 10 mean for UF?


The University of Florida Computer Information Sciences and Engineering building on the UF campus Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

Doug Finger/ Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 7:54 p.m.

The question has lingered since University of Florida President Bernie Machen agreed Tuesday to keep steering the ship at the request of Gov. Rick Scott.

Why is it so important that UF be a top 10 university according to a magazine rating?

Currently, according to the widely cited U.S. News and World Report rankings, UF is the 17th best public university in the country. During the past eight years, the university has fluctuated between 13th and 19th. Several California universities, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin at Madison can claim spots ahead of UF.

But UF officials are saying that being a top 10 university has less to do with a magazine's ranking and more to do with measuring success in research, distinguished faculty and the quality of undergraduate and graduate education.

UF Provost Joe Glover said the real goal is to bolster measurable areas in UF's performance, including research, graduate and doctoral capacity and the number of businesses that spin off from the university.

“I think that U.S. News and World Report is not the end-all, be-all,” he said, adding that there are lots of dimensions, like alumni satisfaction and other intangibles, that are not captured by the ranking. “I think that ‘top 10' may be a code phrase for UF rising to the next level.”

The magazine's rankings have been criticized in recent years, with critics saying it drives up the cost of higher education because it awards higher spending. Critics also say institutions can manipulate data to boost their rankings and administrators can rate their schools as high as they want to in peer assessments.

Machen faced criticism in 2009 when he gave UF the highest possible ranking on the U.S. News assessment, assigning his school the same ranking as Yale, Harvard and Princeton. At the same time, he rated other Florida schools in lower categories.

But UF leaders emphasize that standards, not rankings, are the real focus.

Former UF trustee Alan Levine, whom Scott appointed to the Board of Governors on Thursday, said rankings work only because they are driven by standards.

“From the governor's perspective, it's not rankings for the sake of rankings,” he said. “It's about trying to create or achieve a level of standards that puts our system ahead of other systems.”

UF trustee Michael Heekin said as long as the university is successfully fulfilling its mission to educate and serve the residents of Florida, the nation and the world, it will receive high rankings.

“If we do that, and we do it well, then we should be in the top 10,” he said.

UF officials have long argued that a higher ranking will lure world-class faculty, lead to improved programs and attract competitive students.

Schools now listed in the magazine's top 10 have higher tuition rates and smaller class sizes than UF — facts not lost on UF's top brass.

“In order to do what we want to do, it's obviously going to take more money,” Glover said. “Where that money comes from doesn't necessarily matter.”

In an editorial column published in the Tampa Bay Times, Machen steers the money question away from tuition and more toward state support.

“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,” he writes.

He also acknowledges the ratio of students to faculty as another shortcoming.

“Perhaps our greatest deficiency is our high number of students compared to faculty,” he writes. “With a ratio of 20.5 students to one professor, faculty members are spread far more thinly at UF than at the leading public universities.”

According to the column, Machen envisions UF raising the state's profile as it plays a part in a growing technology economy, citing examples like Silicon Valley in California and North Carolina's Research Triangle Park — both near prestigious, highly ranked universities — as models for what could happen in Florida.

The thought of having a top university in town, even if it meant higher tuition and tougher admission standards, has local education officials enthused.

Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser said such recognition would be a boon for the whole university community.

“That is a symbol of excellence that translates into grants, translates into students that are looking to come here and also into recruiting faculty and staff,” he said.

“What's good for the University of Florida is good for Santa Fe,” he said. “That's not going to change.”

Karen Clarke, director of secondary curriculum for Alachua County Public Schools, said she sees many benefits should UF ascend, but it could create a more a competitive admissions process.

“My only concern is that we would not be able to send as many students as we do,” she said.

Looking at enrollment numbers from 1998 to 2011, Alachua County leads the state with the highest number of high school graduates enrolling at UF, on average.

Clarke said the district could grow, saying that UF would be able to bring in top-notch faculty, who would likely come with families who would enter the school system.

She added that higher rankings might lead to stronger graduates from the College of Education who would make good teaching candidates for local schools.

“You're always excited to see improvement in the education realm,” she said.

Contact Joey Flechas at 338-3166 or joey.flechas@gvillesun.com.

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