The University of Florida will not find it easy to replace Bernie Machen, who as president deftly led the state's flagship university as state government retreated on higher education. Machen, who announced Friday he would retire by the end of next year, steered a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign, bolstered research funding and maintained financial aid as a priority even amid the state funding cuts. In searching for a successor, the university should seek someone with a similar vision — and the backbone to defend the importance of higher education in Florida.
Machen's tenure as president has been marked by shrinking state support. This is the fifth year in a row that funding for the university system has been cut. Machen lobbied the state Legislature for authority to raise tuition by an unlimited amount, citing a need to bring UF's tuition in line with that of its peer universities. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill, voicing reasonable concerns that it would hinder struggling families' access to the school. Machen opted not to face down the governor, who is opposing any tuition increase. On Friday, Machen recommended the school seek only a 9 percent increase in tuition even as the Board of Trustees was prepared to approve the maximum increase of 15 percent.
Machen's politically pragmatic move will minimize fights on tuition during his transition. But those charged with finding his replacement should take note: The struggle will continue for years to come.
That's why it's important that the university conduct a thorough, national search to find someone who can fill Machen's big shoes. His accomplishments should not be understated because of recent legislative defeats. Along with successfully spearheading the $1.5 billion Florida Tomorrow fundraising campaign during a recession, Machen has also overseen an endowment that has doubled in value since 2004. All the while, the university has remained one of the nation's most affordable options in higher education.
Machen's successor will be among the most visible advocates for higher education in a state whose leaders are attempting to redefine it. Scott has said students should pursue the degrees most likely to lead to jobs — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, at the expense of fields in the liberal arts. This priority, coupled with dramatic funding cuts, is part of a disconcerting national trend, one that university presidents are responsible for combating. The University of Florida's next president should address it head-on.
Machen has ably served the University — and the state — of Florida. His successor should be just as aggressive in defending higher education.