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Will UF be given greater autonomy?

University of Florida President Bernie Machen is calling for his university to be treated differently than other state institutions and given more freedom, but Machen is open to those universities getting the same opportunity based on their performance.

Machen’s effort comes as major public universities from Louisiana to Oregon have pushed, with varying success, to be given greater autonomy from their states. UF sought passage of a law in 2010 that would have named it as the state’s official flagship, but the designation was dropped amid opposition from Florida State University.

This time, Machen is using UF’s lead in measures such as graduation rates and research funding to distinguish it from the state’s other 10 public universities. He’s also made the argument that UF is unlike other state schools in its worldwide reach and impact on economic development. Lawmakers in meetings last week were receptive to the case, he said.

“The differentiation in terms of performance has always been there,” he said. “I just think now everyone’s beginning to understand just how different we are than the other universities. We’ll see if that turns out to give me latitude to do things that others can’t.”

Machen acknowledged that the flagship designation was a lighting rod, so an approach that sets benchmarks might be a better way to achieve long-sought freedom on issues such as raising tuition at higher rates than now allowed. While UF already exceeds most benchmarks being considered, he said, any university that reaches those benchmarks would also be granted freedoms.

UF isn’t alone in seeking greater independence. Such efforts are happening across the United States as public universities face a crisis due to budget cuts, said James Garland, former president of Miami University in Ohio and author of “Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities.”

At the same time that cuts are being made, he said, states have piled on restrictions on issues such as approval of buildings, investments, programs and tuition.

“If they’re going to maintain the quality of their schools, they’ve got to be able to control their own destiny to a degree they’ve not previously enjoyed,” he said.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon started off the legislative session last month by calling for a dialogue on reforming higher education in the state. The House Education Committee subsequently held hearings with all state university presidents to hear ideas. Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican and chancellor of private Flagler College, said the committee hasn’t committed to any ideas yet but should have a better idea in the next few weeks.

He said there is clear variation between state universities with UF being distinct as the only member of the Association of American Universities, a group of top research schools. Other public universities in Florida might be open to ideas like letting UF raise tuition at a higher rate, he said, if they could have the same option if they met certain benchmarks.

“I can’t say how they’d react, but my sense of it would be that they would be receptive to that,” he said.

Florida State President Eric Barron said he supports creating state goals and granting freedoms to universities that achieve them. Florida State is competitive with UF in measures such as graduation and retention rates, he said, so should be given the same opportunity if it meets the state’s benchmarks.

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