Machen says funding is key to push for top 10 status


An aerial view of the University of Florida campus as seen in 2011.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 17, 2013 at 9:06 p.m.

The big challenge for the University of Florida in its pursuit of top 10 status as a public research university will be funding, President Bernie Machen says.

"It's a bit daunting, the work cut out for us," Machen said. "We are still competing in a resource-deprived environment."

But he said he's proud of what UF has achieved during five years of economic downturn in Florida, which resulted in $230 million in budget cuts for UF over the years.

"The amazing story is to be in the top tier of public universities with a resource base less than our peers," he said.

Machen and Provost Joe Glover today will present the university's work plan for reaching pre-eminence and top 10 status at the Florida Board of Governors meeting in Tampa. UF is currently ranked 17th among public research universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, just ahead of Ohio State University.

"Where we put our time and effort over the next phase will be directed by the pre-eminence bill," Glover said two weeks ago when presenting the work plan to the UF board of trustees.

The Board of Governors also will hear from the other 11 universities in the state university system over the next three days and make recommendations on next year's capital improvement plan, budget requests and other issues for the 2014 Legislature.

The Legislature restored a $300 million cut from the state university system last year and came up with an additional $314 million for the university system. Spending the state's first new money in years on the universities showed a commitment to higher education, Machen said.

He was particularly thankful that the Legislature approved the pre-eminence bill, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law. It outlines 12 criteria for universities to achieve pre-eminence. Only UF and Florida State University met enough criteria to receive the pre-eminence designation from the Board of Governors.

By meeting all 12 criteria, UF received the additional right to create an online baccalaureate program.

The pre-eminence designation comes with $15 million a year for the next five years, which Machen has promised to match with private donations for a total of $150 million. That money then will be used to recruit top research professors and their retinues, hire support staff and build labs and other facilities for them. The plan also calls for investing in doctoral programs.

The designation also taps UF to create the state's first fully online baccalaureate program, which is supposed to be up and running by Jan. 1. The state is giving the university $10 million in startup money and $5 million a year for five years to develop the program.

"You can't do it from the top down," Machen said. "It requires the faculty buying into it."

UF is the only university in the state university system that is a member of the Association of American Universities. At $6,150 a year, UF has the lowest tuition among the AAU's public members. Penn State has the highest tuition among AAU's public members at $16,444 a year.

"We're doing more here with less," Machen said. "It is not about tuition, but about having the resources to accomplish the mission. It would be great if we didn't have to raise tuition."

On the other hand, having such a low tuition gives UF a competitive edge in attracting top students. And 59 percent of its students graduate debt-free, he said.

UF has among the three largest doctoral enrollments in the U.S. and has a core faculty of 4,200. It has more than $740 million in annual research funding.

UF also is focused on its mandate to spur economic development and entrepreneurship. It generates more than one-third of the state's new inventions and university startups. In 2012, UF helped start 15 companies through its Innovation Square. It helped attract several major high-tech businesses to the area, including Mindtree and Mobiquity, which have a combined projection of creating almost 700 jobs that pay an average $49,000 a year or more.

Machen said his team is working on a communication strategy to bring faculty on board.

The pre-eminence legislation also allows UF to create a core curriculum of nine to 12 credits that would be unique to all undergraduates. The required course "The Good Life," which introduces freshmen to the humanities, has been cited as an example.

A year ago, Machen was facing retirement and winding down his presidential duties. But Gov. Scott and UF board Chairman David Brown persuaded him to stay another year provided the Legislature gave UF the support Machen had asked for to achieve top 10 public status.

What the Legislature and governor came up with met his expectations, Machen said, and he's meeting his duties with renewed energy and enthusiasm. He said he's excited about the challenges and projects ahead. And he's optimistic because UF already meets 22 of the 29 criteria he and his team set for achieving top 10 status among public universities.

Those rankings are from the UF Office of Institutional Research based on data from U.S. News & World Report comparing the top 16 public universities in the AAU. The AAU has 34 public universities, 26 private universities and two Canadian universities.

Machen identified seven areas where UF falls below the top 10. The university is 12th in the percentage of entering freshmen in the top 10 percent of their class at 78 percent; 11th in the actual six-year graduation rate at 84 percent; and 13th in total federal research expenditures.

The other four are faculty-related: UF is 16th in student-to-faculty ratio at 21:1; it is 13th in faculty resources; 16th in the number of faculty who are National Academy members; and 11th in the number of faculty awards.

A recent survey by the faculty union showed that faculty members are concerned about the equal and fair distribution of resources.

Machen said he wants to focus the next five years on bringing those faculty categories closer to the top 10, but he also is realistic that those goals might not be achieved easily.

Those faculty hires will be in targeted areas, Machen said, which might ruffle some departmental and faculty feathers. He's creating a pre-eminence committee to decide which departments will get those dollars.

"The top 10 is going to be really contentious," Machen said. "Not every unit is going to get the resources — we have to place it strategically."

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