Friday, May 25, 2018
Opinion

Retire as University of Florida president? Not with an opportunity like this

After nine years as president of the University of Florida, and nearing my self-imposed limit of a decade, I thought I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life.

But the promise of reaching a goal I have sought since my first day at UF was too much to pass up.

As you may have read in the news, UF was in the final stages of its search process for my successor last week when Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked me to remain at UF's helm. He said he would give me his full support in helping UF join the ranks of the nation's best public research universities.

Elevating UF to the level of the flagship public universities in California, Michigan or Wisconsin — all ranked among the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report — has been the top goal for generations of UF leaders. Such a step would be a tremendous boon not only for our students, but also for all Florida residents. I could hardly turn Gov. Scott down.

With nearly 50,000 students, 4,200 full-time faculty members and $740 million in annual research spending, UF is already an excellent public research university. In fact, we are among the nation's top-ranked universities for efficiency, value and the transformation of research into new products.

However, UF falls short in key measures of the quality of our educational experience. Perhaps our greatest deficiency is our high number of students compared to faculty. With a ratio of 20.5 students to one professor, faculty members are spread far more thinly at UF than at the leading public universities. UF also has less money to support professors' work, limiting our quality and holding back our reputation.

We have sought repeatedly over the decades to close these and other key gaps with our more highly ranked peers. But while the state of Florida has been a generous supporter of public higher education, UF has never been recognized as unique among the state's 12 universities for the size and scope of its research mission. This is part of the reason UF is ranked 17th among public universities by U.S. News — up from previous years, but chronically below several California universities and those in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Illinois and Virginia.

Gov. Scott will reveal more about his plans when he unveils his proposed budget for next year, but they will include substantial commitments that will improve the quality of our education and research programs to accelerate our climb up the rankings.

This will be a hugely important step, first and foremost, for UF's roughly 32,000 undergraduates — 97 percent of whom are residents of Florida.

These students deserve the same quality of teaching and richness of classroom experience as their counterparts attending top-ranked public universities elsewhere. In fact, such a university education is arguably more important in Florida — a bellwether state soon to be the nation's third most populous. Our best and brightest shouldn't have to leave home to earn degrees as respected — and as valued by employers — as those of Berkeley, Virginia or Michigan.

But a higher-quality, more prestigious UF will also raise the profile of the Sunshine State, promoting economic development — and especially, Florida's growing technology economy.

This promise is clear from the history of Silicon Valley, with its proximity to UC-Berkeley and Stanford University, as well as North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, adjacent to N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. Boston's Route 128 technology corridor, with its ties to MIT and Harvard, is another model.

The development of Medical City in Orlando offers a case in point closer to home. The Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute only agreed to build its new location there on condition that UF would also create a research center at Lake Nona.

The more prominent and influential UF's research, the better educated and more highly trained its graduates, the more likely future Burnhams will choose to come to Florida.

Most of the nation's best universities literally spent centuries building their institutions, and UF won't enter their ranks overnight. But Gov. Scott's commitment to UF creates an alignment of political and higher education leadership in Florida that is truly historic. Having devoted my tenure to raising UF to the top ranks, I would not think of moving on at such a moment — and I look forward to helping to shape a future that will benefit all Floridians.

Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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