In a surprising change of heart that's likely to have ripple effects throughout the state university system, the University of Florida decided Friday to ask for a 9 percent tuition hike — short of the 15 percent increase the university is allowed to seek under state law.
The recommendation made by UF president Bernie Machen, who also announced his upcoming retirement, was unanimously approved by the university's Board of Trustees.
Machen's proposal comes just a couple of months after he heavily lobbied the state Legislature and governor for unlimited power to raise tuition. Machen wanted to raise UF's tuition, now at about $5,700 a year, to the national average, more than $8,000, in light of continued state budget cuts.
But Gov. Rick Scott, a vocal critic of tuition hikes, vetoed a bill that would have allowed Machen to do that, saying that it wasn't fair to put more of a financial burden on Florida families. On Friday, Machen seemed to agree.
"I am ready to pause the notion of using tuition as the main source of getting us out of this problem," said Machen, who has served as UF's president since January 2004.
UF and the rest of the state's 11 universities are preparing for an upcoming meeting of the Florida Board of Governors to discuss plans for the future and tuition hikes. That board, which oversees the state university system, will have the final say.
Under a program known as "tuition differential," universities are allowed to raise tuition beyond whatever base increase the Legislature approves, as long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year. This year, the Legislature recommended no base tuition hike, instead assuming the universities would seek the maximum amount on their own. (The state budget includes projected revenues from that speculative 15 percent hike in the universities' appropriations.)
Meanwhile, lawmakers cut state funding to the universities by $300 million.
It's the fifth year in a row that universities' budgets have been cut. That loss, coupled with tuition increases, means students now pay half or more of the share of their higher education. Just a few years ago, they paid about a quarter, with state funding making up the difference.
The University of South Florida Board of Trustees meets next week. In previous discussions, members have signaled they would seek the maximum hike.
They could have some trouble.
Rick Yost, a UF chemistry professor and the faculty representative of the Board of Governors, predicted that UF's move could change things for other universities.
"I think this will have some impact," he said Friday.
Also at the meeting, Machen told trustees that he would retire by the time his contract runs out at the end of 2013. He said he would stay on until a search for his successor is complete, a process that the board chairman said would start next month and likely take six months to a year.
Under his contract, Machen, a dentist by trade, can stay after retirement as a full-time faculty member. He would be paid his $416,000 base presidential salary through 2015 and then a salary equal to the highest-paid dentistry faculty member.
Information from the Gainesville Sun was used in this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.