UF ready to execute its top 10 plan


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

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 7:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 7:44 p.m.

With a sweep of his hand, Gov. Rick Scott has signed legislation putting the University of Florida on track to become the state's pre-eminent university, a status that brings with it millions of dollars in additional money and designation as the university to create an online degree program.

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

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

It also brings UF President Bernie Machen the legislative and financial support he needs to achieve his longtime goal for the university — to distinguish it from the other universities in the state university system and place it among the ranks of the top 10 public institutions of higher learning in the country.

“Our goal for many years has been to become a top 10 university in the fullest sense of the term, and this bill finally sets in place some of the key pieces we need to head down that road,” Machen said in a news release issued by the Florida Board of Governors on Monday, the day of the bill's signing.

That goal was delayed a year ago when Scott vetoed a similar bill that would have allowed state universities that met 11 of 14 academic and research performance standards to raise tuition rates beyond the state's 15 percent annual cap.

Scott was adamantly opposed to any kind of tuition increase, and university officials worked with lawmakers to find other revenue sources to pay for that top 10 plan.

The pre-eminence plan is part of a broad, 144-page reform package affecting every stage of public education from kindergarten to graduate school.

The legislation identifies 12 academic and research criteria for a pre-eminent university designation, including that freshmen have a GPA of 4.0 or better and SAT scores of 1800 or better, an endowment of $500 million or more, and research grants totaling $350 million or more. By meeting those criteria, FSU and UF each will receive $15 million in the first year. Administrators at UF have said they would spend the $15 million on hiring new faculty to help bring UF closer to the goal of becoming a top 10 university.

“I agree that the governor was not fond of the tuition language in the previous pre-eminence bill,” Provost Joe Glover said on Friday. “It would have given UF much more discretion on raising tuition on its own.”

Tuition flexibility was a means to an end.

“This was one way to generate more revenue, but not all the money you needed,” Glover said.

The previous pre-eminence bill had the same language as the current version, in that the state should invest in UF to achieve top 10 status.

“I think it is a significant turning point because it represents the state's recognition that UF has unique capacities to help the state,” Glover said. “It represents a partnership between the state and the university to advance the interests of the state.”

New this year that was not in last year's pre-eminence bill is language that charges UF with creating an online university. UF will receive $10 million in first-year startup money and $5 million a year in recurring money to create and run an online university that meets the same academic standards as UF's course offerings for students on campus.

Finally, the law gives UF the green light to create a 9- to 12-hour core curriculum unique to the institution that all students would be required to take and could not opt out of by taking advanced placement, dual enrollment or other accelerated programs.

Machen has talked on numerous occasions about the importance of students having a shared educational experience, something other top administrators share.

“The original notion was that we'd come up with a foundational set of courses everyone should take to explore various pieces of the puzzle,” said Andy McCullough, the associate provost for teaching and technology.

School officials have noticed that students are trained very deeply in a small, topical area but don't have a broad, generalized education. An engineer who can determine whether a bridge can carry a load without breaking down might not be a good manager.

“As a society, we are discovering there is a place for a specialist, but a well-trained generalist is critical to our success,” McCullough said.

Glover said the idea was to recreate what UF had 30 years ago.

“Alumni remember those experiences fondly,” he said. “We've lost that as we've diversified. There is no common academic experience no two students have in common.”

Administrators asked if there was a way to give students a common academic experience and developed a course called “The Good Life.” That course became a requirement last year for all incoming freshmen. The bill allows UF to create a couple more courses like it, said Glover, who indicated the administration has no specific courses in mind or in development right now.

“None are being taught that would fit the bill, but we would probably engage the faculty if they'd like to develop one or two courses of this nature,” he said. “We have no self-imposed deadline for this. We are now moving into the summer, so we would likely begin that conversation in the fall.”

More immediately, the university needs to start planning how to achieve top 10 status, Glover said.

“We are coming off five difficult years in Florida and the U.S. in recession,” Glover said. “During that time, we have maintained the faculty and quality of the research programs to the best of our ability. Things have eroded a bit. We have not done a lot of hiring.”

Last year, the state Legislature cut the higher education budget by $300 million, forcing UF to come up with $38 million in spending cuts, achieved through layoffs and library closures.

Glover said there is no plan to restore what has been lost.

“We're not going to look to fill in all or any gaps created in the last five years,” he said. “We're looking to move forward.”

The administration plans to spend at least the whole summer discussing where the $15 million in pre-eminence funding should be invested, with a focus on new areas of technology and biotechnology, he said.

“Frankly, we are looking for the next thing to invest in and the next thing we need to do. We will be talking with the deans and department chairs and faculty about areas that money is best needed and best use of the money,” Glover said.

The university also will develop a variety of metrics to make sure it is improving its stature: patents and licenses, grant money from sources such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

“It represents our opportunity to invest the money wisely, mostly into faculty that are going to do the teaching, the research, making new discoveries,” Glover said. Those discoveries in turn lead to the technology transfer and licensing that drive new companies and help develop the Florida economy, he said.

“Notably, with the development of Innovation Square, the attraction of high-tech companies, the Lake Nona campus in Orlando, we're establishing a pretty clear track record for all to see that UF is capable of doing what we claim to do,” Glover said.

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