Machen: Higher education is under attack
Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Higher education is under attack, University of Florida President Bernie Machen told faculty in his State of the University address Thursday, and it's up to administrators and faculty to fight back by meeting those challenges head on.
"College is a refuge from hasty judgment," Machen said, quoting the poet Robert Frost, who used to winter in Gainesville and hold poetry readings on campus. "Yet this particular fall, we all understand the refuge of higher education is vulnerable to judgments, both hasty and harsh."
Machen addressed about 100 members of the Faculty Senate, who had gathered in the Reitz Union Grand Ballroom to hear him speak before going into their first business meeting of the academic year.
"I like the tone on campus," Faculty Senate President Marc Heft said. "We have a chance to make a statement."
"Our very existence is being challenged," Machen said, adding that the best way to respond was to seize the moment, and "create our future by drawing on the essence of our history."
Machen returned several times to the theme of using the strengths of its past as a land grant university to invent its future and attain its goal of becoming a Top 10 university nationally — whether it's developing an online degree program, competing for dwindling research grants and recruiting new faculty, or creating a common curriculum for UF students.
Machen mentioned the higher education plan President Barack Obama unveiled Thursday. Obama wants to make college more affordable and accessible, and tie financial aid and funding to educational value and the use of technology in education.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a law passed by the Florida Legislature containing similar provisions that tie financial incentives for state universities to performance metrics.
Machen spoke about using technology to make college more accessible with the creation of an online baccalaureate program, or E-Campus. The Legislature gave UF $10 million in startup costs and $5 million a year to support the online undergraduate program.
E-Campus will be offered at 75 percent of the cost of regular classes, be taught by regular faculty and require its students meet the same academic standards as the students who attend UF's campus.
UF already has 7,000 students enrolled in online classes, mostly at the graduate level. It has 10 two-plus-two programs that allow students with associate's degrees to get their bachelor's degrees online, Machen said. Starting in January, five of those programs will be expanded to four years, Machen said, with an eye toward adding five more programs a year.
"We are one of the first bricks-and-mortar universities out of the gate to go after first-time, first-year students," he said.
Machen said he was also excited about the Legislature's green-lighting the development of a core curriculum of up to 12 credit hours unique to students at UF.
"I'm only too aware of the political pressures to make universities even more utilitarian than we are," Machen said. "And given the economic difficulties, I agree that we need to prepare students for careers."
But he asked, "Shouldn't we also get students to think more deeply about technology's influence in their worldview? How about the concepts of community in a globalized world, or resiliency in the face of failure, or what the word ‘leadership' truly means?"
He said he was encouraged that for the first time in five years, the Legislature didn't cut the university's budget. Tallahassee cut UF's budget by $230 million over that period, forcing program cuts and reducing full-time and tenure track faculty by 9.4 percent.
This past session, the Legislature restored $300 million in cuts to the university system and gave additional millions to UF to pursue its goals of achieving national Top 10 status. The Legislature recognized UF as the state's most preeminent university, a designation that comes with millions of new dollars to recruit faculty, build new classrooms and teaching labs, and develop an online baccalaureate program.
"After so many tough years, this legislation will help rejuvenate some of the departments most harmed by five years of cuts," Machen said. "It represents a new beginning."
He mentioned several recent accomplishments that he said will help enhance UF's status as a research university: The opening of the Clinical and Translational Research Building, the Eastside Data Center with its HiPerGator computer, the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator and the merging of Shands Hospital and the UF Health Science Center as UF Health.
He also mentioned the upcoming renovation of the Reitz Union. Officials expect to break ground on the construction project in a few weeks.
Machen said UF has worked to become one of the nation's top universities for 100 years or so, with fewer resources than its peers and without the state's support. "This tradition ended with the Legislature's acknowledgment of UF as Florida's leading research university — and its financial commitment toward us reaching the next level."
UF will get $15 million a year from Tallahassee, which Machen has pledged to match with private donations to recruit nationally renowned research faculty. In addition, the University of Florida Foundation has launched an $800 million fund drive to help create 100 new endowed professorships.
UF was admitted to the Association of American Universities 28 years ago, joining the ranks of 62 of the country's top public and private research institutions. Machen said that when UF is compared to the top 16 AAU public universities, its biggest gaps have to do with faculty and prestige.
UF is ranked last in both student-to-faculty ratio and in number of National Academy members, 13th in faculty resources and 11th in faculty awards, he said.
"We want new hires throughout the university," Machen said, "but we will invest strategically in departments or groups that have the most potential for national prominence."
Investing in faculty comes at a time when contracts and grants have stagnated — falling half a percentage point for this fiscal year, from $644.3 million to $640.6 million.
"This preeminent recognition is less of a recognition and more of a challenge," Machen said. "It's saying, ‘Here's the resources. Now go and prove you can be a great university.' I hope the faculty will join me."