Bernie Machen says he’s left a good foundation for new UF president

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Outgoing University of Florida president Bernie Machen says he’s leaving a good foundation for his successor, who takes over Jan. 1.

In an interview published Sunday in The Gainesville Sun, Machen said the university is in better shape than it was two years ago, when he initially planned to retire.

“I would hate to have left two years ago,” Machen said. “The economy was just coming out of the recession. Everyone was worn out, and there was nothing to talk about.”

Machen will receive the title of president emeritus, and he will stay on as a senior adviser to fundraise and help incoming president Kent Fuchs. The five-year contract will earn Machen $3.9 million, all of it paid for by private funds.

“I’m not saying that Kent’s not going to change things,” Machen said. “He has his own style and will bring his own agenda, take measure of things and develop his plan for the next 10 years.”

Machen changed his mind about retiring two years ago after Gov. Rick Scott committed to supporting the school’s goal of becoming a pre-eminent university and restoring its funding.

Since then, the Legislature has restored millions of dollars in funding as well as additional money to hire new faculty, build new classrooms and dorms, renovate the student union and give raises to faculty.

“Everybody got a piece of what they’ve wanted,” Machen said.

Dave Thomas, vice chair of the board of trustees, credits Machen with raising $2.8 billion for the university and helping to secure $588 million from the Legislature for capital construction projects.

Machen had to make some tough budget-cutting decisions during his tenure, including laying off staff, giving faculty buyouts and freezing positions to help balance the budget during the recession. Faculty members argued that the university should dip into its reserves, which Machen refused to do.

“There is a temptation to kick the can down the road, but we made a lot of cuts,” Machen said.

He said the decision to cap undergraduate enrollment was a good strategy, as was concentrating on a mostly in-state student population even though out-of-state tuitions would have brought in more money.

Ninety percent of UF’s undergraduates are state residents, compared with the University of Alabama, where 54 percent of its student body comes from in-state.

“We have been identified as Florida’s university, and pre-eminence was our payoff for staying allegiant,” Machen said.

The Legislature has curtailed how much UF can raise tuition above the state-approved rate, and Scott has committed to keeping tuition from going higher. Not having that flexibility increases the university’s dependence on the Legislature to increase funding, Machen said, which means Fuchs must ensure that UF keeps a strong presence in Tallahassee.

Fuchs comes to UF from Cornell University, where he was provost and spearheaded several initiatives to refocus funding and faculty in top academic areas, experience that fits in well with UF’s aspiration to become a Top 10 public university nationwide.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.