For Bernie Machen, it started before he’d been hired. The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees was looking for a president who would commit to moving the institution up the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings.“The thing that would bring us all together was to be able to bring the university, that we all went to and loved, to the top 10,” said Manny Fernandez, a tech-company executive who chaired the 2003 presidential search. At the time, the University of Florida ranked No. 52 over all and No. 17 among public universities. The board wanted to see the Gators among the top 10 public institutions.Fernandez was tired of the reactions he would get when he divulged his alma mater at parties. Either people wouldn’t have really heard of the University of Florida — “or somebody would say, ‘Wasn’t that voted No. 1 party school by Playboy?’” Fernandez was offended. “I believe I am who I am today because I went to this school,” he said. “We needed to change the external perception of the University of Florida.” U.S. News was one very effective way to do that.Machen, too, believed in the goal. While many people inside and outside of higher education today argue that a high ranking doesn’t necessarily translate to quality, Machen believed in many of U.S. News’s metrics. “I feel that many of them are relevant and worth shooting for,” he said, “and I think improving on those variables made us a better institution.”He became the president of the University of Florida in January 2004. He would not see the Gators reach his goal; he retired in 2014, when UF was No. 14 among public universities. But he set the ball for the next administration’s spike. The Gators would break into the top 10 in 2017. On Monday, in U.S. News’ latest rankings, they ranked sixth — on the verge of reaching their latest goal: top five.In his efforts to cement his university’s place in the rankings, Machen reached far beyond Gainesville. He worked with then-Governor Rick Scott to get the state to pass a funding scheme called Preeminence, which rewarded public colleges that did best on some of the metrics deemed important by U.S. News. For the University of Florida, Preeminence created the kind of virtuous circle that such money often begets. It helped the university ascend the rankings, which in turn brought in more applicants, more approval from lawmakers, and more money, which administrators could use to keep climbing.In return, Machen supported Scott’s launch of performance-based funding for Florida universities — a system that also advantaged the flagship. But the partial alignment of state purse strings with U.S. News metrics has come at a cost. Critics say these developments have driven an even bigger wedge between the state’s four-year colleges, making richer institutions richer, and depriving less-resourced institutions of much-needed funds.Recently lawmakers seem to have turned away from Preeminence, which has received no state allocation in the last two years. But the statute is still in Florida law, and universities are still scored on its metrics. The program helped set the universities up for where they are today, amid the early days of a crisis that could take a big bite out of higher education. And the horse-trading between Machen and Scott also stands as a striking example of the outsized power that the U.S. News college rankings have come to hold in higher education.
Stephen Dowell, Orlando Sentinel, Tribune News Service via GettyBernie Machen, a former president of the University of Florida.
Machen understood right away that to climb the U.S. News rankings, as he had been hired to do, he would need more money. In particular, he would need more money per student. He and his team saw that one big problem was the student-to-faculty ratio, an important part of the formula that would be expensive to fix. So he lobbied the Board of Trustees to let him freeze enrollment and raise tuition. It took some effort, he said: “The board is a political body. They hear from parents who want to know why their kid didn’t get in.” But he succeeded.Yet after nine years at Florida, he still hadn’t quite made it into the top 10, and he was getting tired. “We had lived through the recession. It was pretty tough,” he said. “I was a little bit burned out. I said, ‘I think I’ll just step down and let someone else take over.’”But Scott had other ideas. Machen recalled that, as he was preparing to retire, Scott said to him: “I’ll tell you what, what would it take for you to stay a couple more years?”That something turned out to be the Preeminence program, a piece of legislation that gives Florida’s public universities extra funding if they are able to meet more than a dozen metrics that Machen helped write. Several of these measures would match the formula that U.S. News uses to rank colleges, and one was actually for appearing on “well-known and highly respected national public university rankings.” “That gave me another shot at trying to get quicker into the top 10,” Machen said.Between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 fiscal years, the University of Florida has received $61.9 million in Preeminence funding. Only Florida State University has received as much, and eight universities have never received any Preeminence money at all.UF’s funds went to hiring not only more faculty members, but stars in their fields, people who would sharpen the research attributable to the University of Florida, bolster the university’s national reputation, and bring in big, prestigious federal research grants. In one memorable case, Florida wooed Juan Gilbert, a computer scientist with an endowed chair at Clemson University and millions in federal research grants, by promising to bring his colleagues along with him. “I had built a community at Clemson,” Gilbert said. He had recruited what was at the time the country’s largest group of Black faculty members in computer science. “I said, ‘If I’m going to move, everybody’s got to come.’”The University of Florida flew Gilbert and his colleagues down to Gainesville just as an ice storm barreled into the region, around Valentine’s Day 2014, Gilbert recalled. Later, during their spring break, students from Gilbert’s lab drove to Florida to meet with Cammy R. Abernathy, dean of the college of engineering. Abernathy ended up hiring four other Clemson computer-science faculty members, as well as taking on two post-doctoral fellows and 20 doctoral students.“When other universities realized they were losing faculty to Florida, it made an impression,” Machen said, “which directly helped our rankings.” How leaders at other universities rate a school in a survey forms 20 percent of the U.S. News score.“That was the price I had to pay, basically,” Machen said. “I had to pay two more years, but we got the Preeminence program.”The governor also got something out of the deal. Around the time Machen planned to retire, Scott was finally seeking to restore some funding to Florida’s public higher-education system, which had endured deep cuts as a result of what was then the worst recession in most Americans’ memory. But Scott wanted that money divvied up in a different way.
Steve Cannon, AP ImagesRick Scott, Florida’s former governor.
“Families expect investments in education to provide increased success and opportunities for their children,” Scott wrote in a public letter in May 2013, explaining his budget. Therefore he wanted institutions to get “funding based on performance metrics that will measure a university’s success in helping students obtain high-paying jobs affordably.” He proposed metrics including the size of new graduates’ first salaries. Previously, Florida had funded its four-year colleges based on how many students they enrolled. Community colleges had been subject to performance-based funding, but that program had lapsed.The 2008-9 financial crisis led to a wave of states adopting performance measures, rather than enrollment, to decide their universities’ base budgets, the education researchers Kevin J. Dougherty and Rebecca S. Natow write in The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformations. Performance-funding systems help politicians show voters that they’re being responsible with hard-earned taxpayer money, and that they’re holding their universities to account.The schemes can be a hard sell for universities, however. Scott needed an ally.One former official said the governor was counting on support from whomever was the president of the University of Florida for the performance-based funding system. “Honestly, his support or opposition to the performance metrics would be fundamental to how other academic institutions in Florida viewed it,” said Adam Hollingsworth, who was Scott’s chief of staff from 2012 to 2014.Scott knew Machen and knew he could count on Machen’s support, Hollingsworth said: “I think the governor wanted to maintain that partnership until the performance-metrics system was not only fully implemented, but fully embraced by the academic community.”Machen said he didn’t know why, exactly, Scott was so keen on his staying. The extension of his presidency was controversial. The Board of Trustees was preparing to interview its final group of potential new UF presidents when it learned Machen was not retiring after all, a former board chair told the Tampa Bay Times. Critics thought Scott overstepped his authority in muscling Machen back in.Machen speculated the governor didn’t want a new University of Florida president during a re-election year. Told about Hollingsworth’s idea, Machen said: “There was no question about it, [Scott] wanted us to be better, and he had his own goals for that. They were not in conflict with the goals that we were pursuing. The governor and I had a good working relationship.”Retrenched at the helm of the University of Florida, Machen was a guest at Scott’s State of the State address in March 2013, where Scott thanked Machen for “being so helpful in coming up with performance measurements for success.”“Almost overnight,” said Ralph C. Wilcox, who has been provost of the University of South Florida since 2008, “the rules of the game changed.”Seven years on, the game is still played according to the rules of performance-based funding, and it’s reshaped Florida’s public universities.Florida’s performance metrics still hew closely to Scott’s vision of a public-university degree as needing to be a good value for money. Factors that most recently helped decide Florida’s universities’ base funding today include the median wages of employed graduates with bachelor’s degrees; net tuition per credit hour; and how many degrees are awarded in subjects the Board of Governors believes are important to the Florida economy. (Subjects of “strategic emphasis” currently include teaching, health professions, and many science and technology fields. Public relations is included, but journalism is not.). Out of the 10 metrics the colleges are graded on, there’s one “institution’s choice” — typically something its Board of Trustees thinks it will do well on in the coming years.Among the metrics everyone uses, there’s historically only been one that’s related to social equity: percent of undergraduates who receive Pell Grants.Systemwide, the universities have done better, on average, on all of the metrics since 2013, according to a Board of Governors report from August 2019. The area of greatest improvement was in four-year graduation rates, which went from 44 percent, for the class that started in 2009, to 53 percent, for the class that started in 2014. Meanwhile, the average price to students for 120 credit hours — the minimum required for a bachelor’s degree — has tumbled, from $15,110 in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $9,400 in 2016-17. Only one metric, percent of undergrads with a Pell Grant, has remained about the same, at about 39 percent.“It’s hard to dismiss the immense gains that performance-based funding and Preeminence has had in a relatively short period of time,” said Wilcox, who supports the programs.All that has led to outside recognition too. Every year since 2017, when it first created such a list, U.S. News and World Report has called Florida the best state in the nation for higher education. It’s a point of pride for politicians: Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference to talk about the listing. “We love our ranking,” said Randy Fine, chair of the higher-education appropriations subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives. “Outcomes are what government should be focused on.”Many former and current university leaders have more mixed feelings. Like many other officials The Chronicle interviewed, Dale Whittaker said he’s “a fan of performance funding,” but then immediately launched into his major criticisms of the system. After holding administrative positions at Purdue University and the University of Central Florida, Whittaker was briefly the University of Central Florida’s president before resigning in the wake of findings that the university had spent operational funds on construction, in violation of state rules, prior to his presidency. He now works as a higher-ed consultant.Whittaker said the system “increases homogenization” of the universities. In addition, because institutions that are already doing well get more money, “the winners win faster and faster,” he said. This was especially true under rules in which the three lowest-scoring universities each year would not get a part of their state allocation. That money would go to the top three highest-scoring universities, instead. For those that ended up at the bottom of the list: “It’s awful hard to get better when you’re having money taken out of your pocket.”The universities had long chafed against the “bottom three” mechanism, but Scott was reported to be a fan. The Florida Board of Governors dropped the bottom three in 2018.One institution that often found itself with the “bottom three” designation is Florida A&M University. Since its acceptance into the state university system in 1971, Florida A&M has remained the only historically Black member institution. It’s committed to college access: Nearly two-thirds of its students have Pell Grants, far more than any other state university, and one-third of students are the first in their family to go to college.The funding metrics Florida’s politicians have chosen don’t serve the university well, FAMU faculty members argued. Take graduates’ employment and salaries. Across the country, young Black Americans with bachelor’s degrees are slightly less likely to be employed than their white counterparts. At every level of educational attainment, young Black adults have always earned less than their white peers, on average.These trends are tied to racism in American society, so it’s unfair to punish the university for them, faculty members said. “We can prepare our students well, but we don’t control the economy. We don’t control wages,” said Michael C. LaBossiere, a professor of philosophy and a former college runner. He used a track-and-field analogy to compare Florida’s flagship, which graduated a majority-white class in 2019, and FAMU, which graduated a 90-percent Black class that same year. “Most UF graduates, they’re running on a flat track,” he said. “FAMU graduates are having to do the steeplechase.”In other measures, Florida A&M does fare well, but faculty members feel politicians don’t acknowledge it. “We’re No. 1 in what we do, and that’s the education of Black people, primarily,” said Roscoe Hightower Jr., a professor of marketing. U.S. News has consistently ranked Florida A&M as among the top 10 historically Black colleges and universities in the country. “You never hear the governor or the Board of Governors proclaiming that,” Hightower said.In particular, Florida A&M’s graduation rates have long weighed it down. In 2016, its six-year graduation rate was 41 percent, no different than it had been in 2013. In the Board of Governors’ latest accounting, which now uses four-year graduation rates, the number was 23 percent, for a score of one point out of a possible 10 in that category. Yet as long as these low scores meant FAMU was dealt a smaller budget than it would have otherwise, it was hard to improve those rates, said Larry Robinson, FAMU’s president: “To be successful in this model, what’s important, particularly for the demographic that we deal with, is to have the resources that are necessary to continue to improve.”
Dave Barfield, Rowland PublishingLarry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University.
Many of Florida A&M’s students need supportive services to help them navigate college, which takes money, Robinson said. He wants to see the state use expected graduation rates, which take into account the fact that students from lower-income families without a history of college-going are less likely to graduate quickly, compared to a student from a wealthier family that’s gone to college for generations.“I think graduation rates do tell you a story, but I don’t think they tell you a whole story because the lives that students bring to an institution vary significantly,” he said. “The best measure of what we do is how we transform our students’ lives, whether they finish in four years, or, in some cases, a little bit longer.”After the Florida Board of Governors approved the new funding plan in 2014, Florida A&M began looking more critically at the academic preparedness of its applicants, Robinson said. It wanted to admit students who were more likely to succeed.More recently, the university developed a program to encourage underprepared applicants to go to public colleges with which the university has signed agreements. Once program participants get their associate degree, they’re guaranteed admission to FAMU to complete their bachelor’s. “All of those students, whether they get into the university or not,” Robinson said, “we feel very concerned about their future.” This year FAMU used “number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to transfers from Florida community colleges” as their institution’s choice metric.Across the country, performance-based funding can be especially hard on minority-serving institutions. That’s been true for Florida A&M: It’s the only university in the Florida system whose total funding, when adjusted for inflation, has trended consistently downward since 2006. Everybody lost money after the Great Recession, but for other institutions, the funding picked up again, or at least plateaued, after 2013.The effects are clear to Florida A&M faculty. Budget issues due to the performance system seem to come up in every meeting, LaBossiere said, while James Muchovej, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences, talked about having to buy, out of pocket, the seeds and pots for an introductory plant-science lab he teaches. The average salary for full professors at Florida A&M is the second-lowest of the 12 institutions in the state university system, and the lowest of any high-intensity research institution, public or private, in the state.Since the Board of Governors eliminated the “bottom three” rule, Robinson has been happier with Florida’s funding model. Last year, FAMU received $13 million it wouldn’t have otherwise. “You have to work, in the new model. You have to work hard for the benchmarks for receiving money,” Robinson said, “but it gives everybody a shot, a target that’s within their reach.”Robinson’s faculty were less circumspect. Clement Allen, a computer-science professor, called it racist. Said Hightower, the marketing professor: “I’d like to see performance-based funding dismantled.”
Bryan Pollard, Alamy Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, known as “The Swamp,” at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.
Ask longtime University of Florida faculty members what’s different now about the campus community, compared to 10 or 15 years ago, and they’ll say: the students. It’s a common joke among alumni: I wouldn’t get in if I applied now. As Florida has climbed the rankings, it’s gotten more selective. Just in recent years, the GPA of the average admit rose from 4.3, in 2014, to 4.45, in 2019. The average admitted student’s SAT score went from the 89th percentile to the 94th.Abernathy, the engineering-school dean, joined the faculty in 1993. To her, Florida freshmen seem now to come in with more impressive extracurriculars and more credit hours already finished, from taking advanced classes in high school, but she doesn’t think that’s unique to the Gators. “You just look at the students in higher ed today, at least in the more selective institutions,” she said. “I think that’s true across the country.”What the faculty members don’t say is that they’re now getting fewer poor students. The percent of each newly admitted class that comes from a low-income family fell from 15 percent, in 2015, to 12.5 percent, in 2019.The university suffers from well-known problems with racial representation, but those started before the rankings climb. The proportion of enrolled students who identify as Black or African American has dropped steadily for more than a decade. In fall 2019, it was less than 6 percent — in a state where 22 percent of young adults are Black. In 2018, numerous Black students told the Tampa Bay Times about feeling daily isolation.Ian Green, the student-body president in 2018-19, was raised on stories about how his parents met at the University of Florida and married soon after they graduated. When he applied, he didn’t even think about Black students on campus because he had heard so much from his parents about Black Greek life there, and knew that they had met some of their best friends now in college. When he arrived on campus, however: “I definitely understood that that was a concern, and so when people would ask me, especially other Black men and women, I would be frank with them. I would say, ‘Yes, the population of Black students has decreased since my parents were there,’ but what I think gave me hope is that the University of Florida realized that.” The university brought back Black-student programs that had existed in his parents’ time and built a new Institute of Black Culture.“It’s those kinds of actions that really resonated because a lot of times, in today’s day and age, people will speak about diversity, people will speak about inclusion,” Green said in an interview in February 2020, “but I think that actions will always speak louder than words.”For the students who do make it in, the qualities of the school that have changed with its rankings climb have been good for them. As the university reduced its student-to-faculty ratio, Green thought that students in the cohorts after him seemed closer-knit, as a result of their smaller classes. And he appreciated the hustle and drive he saw in his classmates, which he felt increased even during his five years there as an undergraduate, then a master’s student.For those who control the purse strings, it’s about more than the student experience. Fine, the higher-ed appropriations chair, said a highly ranked, selective University of Florida is a billboard for the whole state. “The better ranked the school is, a student who’s thinking about going out of state might choose to stay in Florida,” he said. “The other thing that it does is it acts as a magnet to attract students from around the country. Once they come here and realize there’s no income tax and it doesn’t snow, there’s a good chance they’re going to stick around.”“We want Florida to be the best state in the country to start, build, and grow a business, and to start, build, and grow your family,” he said, “not just to be a place that people come to on vacation and when they retire.” Shiny universities are an important part of building out Florida’s economy beyond its traditional three legs of tourism, retirement, and agriculture.Even John Delaney, former president of the University of North Florida and well-known critic of performance-based funding, was nonetheless unconcerned about the University of Florida’s and Florida State’s Preeminence funding. “I believe in the flagship idea, that you’ve got to have, in a state our size, two prominent research universities,” he said. “Appropriating them extra funding, as a citizen, makes perfect sense.” But not at the cost of other institutions: “If you were a policy maker and you wanted a bigger bang for your buck by directly affecting students and graduations, that would be to spend on the regional universities.”Machen retired in December 2014. He and his wife stayed in Gainesville, in the house they bought just a couple of years into his presidency. The provost called him when the University of Florida finally broke into the U.S. News’s list of top-10 public universities, in September 2017. “You spent 10 years of your life working on something and seeing that it actually happened: It’s satisfying. Still is,” he said. “I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I was very pleased.” By then he had no doubt that they were going to make it.Under President W. Kent Fuchs, the University of Florida began seeking to enter U.S. News’s top-five public universities list. During an interview in February, long before the latest rankings came out, Machen said he didn’t agree with the goal. “I think top 10 is plenty,” he said. “If we naturally rise above that, so be it. I don’t see any real value in trying to be No. 1, for example.”“I haven’t seen it yet,” he said. “I hope we don’t become too focused on rankings.”