Gator Nation arrives at Capitol enthusiastic about prospects


Nancy Nguyen, 21, a University of Florida student and member of the UF Asian American Student Union, hugs UF President Bernie Machen during a University of Florida Alumni lunch at the Florida State Capitol's Senate Portico during Gator Day in Tallahassee on Thursday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in years, University of Florida officials are riding a tide of optimism as they detect a sea change in support at the Florida Legislature for UF's signature goal of becoming a pre-eminent, top 10 university.

"After five years of coming up here and emptying my pockets, I see a real difference," UF President Bernie Machen told a group of 250 alumni, students and supporters during a luncheon Thursday under the Senate Portico.

The Gator Nation was in full force, flying the orange and blue colors as they met lawmakers, hobnobbed with lobbyists and networked with alumni. About 250 people ate a lunch of shrimp and chicken jambalaya served by Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille, whose owner, Luis Saig, is a UF graduate.

As many people wanted to be photographed with UF mascots Albert and Alberta as they did with Machen.

Even as rain clouds threatened, Machen and others expressed a sunny view that this year will be different, that higher education will get its fair share of financial support that has been lacking in recent years.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature recognize that the "future of the state depends on education," Machen said. They recognized that necessity but didn't have the resources until now, he added.

But Machen cautioned a long road is still ahead before the Legislature signs off on its budget, and he was visiting Tallahassee to see what he could do to bring sides closer together, with meetings scheduled all day with Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

"I don't think that we'll hear ‘Kumbaya' quite yet," he said.

Machen credited Scott with leading the support "to my pleasure and surprise," but also acknowledged that he has got to work with the House and Senate yet to ensure that UF gets the funding bills it needs to achieve his vision.

"You've got to thread the needle through all three (branches)," Machen said.

Since his first day as president of UF, Machen has made it his goal to transform UF into a top 10, pre-eminent university. A bill last year vetoed by the governor would have started the school toward that goal, and now it has been reintroduced with the governor's support.

"I'm hoping we'll make it happen this year," state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, said. Altman supported the measure last year and said he is encouraged by the support he sees this year.

He recalled a meeting several years ago with then-NASA chief Michael Griffin.

Then-state Sen. Marco Rubio asked Griffin what it would take to make Florida more competitive in the high-tech industry, and Griffin told them the state needed a top 10 university like Michigan.

Machen told Altman that with the Legislature's support, UF could achieve that status within five years.

The Legislature also is looking to restore $300 million in higher education money cut from past budgets.

Machen also said he wanted to see legislation passed creating a general education core curriculum that all freshmen would have to take. "Now the only time they get together is on football Saturday," he said.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, whose district includes Alachua County, said he was encouraged by the support among other senators.

"I'm preaching to everyone that we're going to pass New York as the third-largest state, and we deserve a world-class, top 10 university," he said. "The vision is married with the resources to make that come to fruition."

The state's revenues have finally stabilized, and the economy is starting to recover, Bradley said. To meet the needs and challenges of a 21st century global economy, Florida needs a pre-eminent university to produce the labor force required for that economy, he said.

"It cannot be done without a robust university system led by a flagship university," Bradley said.

Bradley added that legislators are getting away from the kind of parochialism that stymied such efforts in the past, where representatives from Orlando would lobby for the University of Central Florida and lawmakers from Tampa would push for the University of South Florida.

"We're all in this together, rowing in the same direction," Bradley said. "I can say with confidence that that is now a statewide vision."

Rep. Alan Williams, the House Democratic whip whose district includes Tallahassee and Florida State University, said the funding initiatives are good for both universities and their respective communities' economies.

"A rising tide lifts all ships," Williams said.

Williams also supported the pre-eminent legislation last year and continues to support it this year because it will benefit the entire state university system. The research and development coming out of those universities also will spin off into business and industry that will employ Floridians "for years to come," he said.

UF students were busy lobbying the halls of the Legislature, too. A contingent of 50 UF students led by Student Body President T.J. Villamil has been in Tallahassee this week as well, pushing for support of the Capital Improvement Trust Fund. Students and UF administrators want to sell bonds to raise money to complete the renovation of the Reitz Union and the conversion of Newell Hall into a student study center, or library without books.

"The governor doesn't want to add to the state debt," Villamil said. "But the university would lose $23 million in funding for these projects without it."

Machen said he supported those efforts, and praised the students for their vision.

"They're enthusiastic, they're talented, and they're excited," Machen said. "The kids say we're going to fix this. They have an entirely different view of the world that is invigorating."

The students have always been world-class, Machen said. "We just need to deliver a world-class education. We just didn't have enough resources."

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