From Ute to Gator: University of Utah President Bernie Machen is Florida-bound.

The University of Florida Board of Trustees Wednesday unanimously chose Machen, 59, to become president of the nation's fourth-largest university. He'll start Jan. 5, 2004.

"It's a whirlwind," he said just before he and his wife, Chris, were whisked off to a reception at an art museum with Florida's lieutenant governor. "Relief is the most appropriate emotion."

Relief, because Florida's process for choosing a university president is much more open than Utah's. "A little too open for my taste," Machen said. "But this is the only way it was going to work."

Machen and two other finalists were interviewed Wednesday by board members. The entire process Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, including the announcement of the new president, was broadcast live over the Internet.

As the University of Florida tries to climb toward new levels of "excellence," trustees praised Machen for his "candor," experience and management style.

"I think the person I want to be behind as he charges up that hill is Bernie Machen," trustee Dianna Fuller Morgan said.

Machen told the Deseret Morning News Wednesday that the university approached him last spring, then again in August.

Machen had also been approached by the University of Florida during a previous search, early in his U. presidency.

This year, "I just said, 'OK, I'll talk to you,' " Machen said. He paid a personal visit to the university to continue talks. "I became more and more interested in what's going on down here.

"I didn't seek it," he added, "they sought me." No one offered him any assurances, but he was told he would be competitive with the other 11 final candidates, who were reduced to three Tuesday. Machen beat out Richard Herman, 62, provost and vice chancellor at the University of Illinois, and William Jenkins, 66, president of the Louisiana State University System.

After his interview Wednesday, it was clear to Machen that trustees valued and focused on his experience as provost of the University of Michigan and his roles at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Florida considers those two schools competitors for recruiting students and faculty, but they both rank much higher academically. Michigan is ranked second among public universities, and 25th overall, in U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings. For North Carolina the numbers are fifth and 29th, respectively. The University of Florida is about 15th and 48th, which is what university officials think Machen can help change.

And it's apparent Machen said what trustees wanted to hear.

"In the real world of academics where our peers are judging us," Machen told them, "the only way to make progress there is to continue to do better in teaching and research by recruiting the best students and faculty and helping them succeed."

On the subject of fostering a diverse campus, Machen said, "You learn more when you share ideas and reflect on the ideas of people who are different than yourself."

What some might consider Florida's gain, others say is Utah's loss.

"I think it's a big loss," incoming Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Kendell said. "I think Bernie Machen is an excellent president."

Kendell will replace Cecelia Foxley, who after 10 years as commissioner is stepping down in December. More than half of that time was spent with Machen as president of the U.

"I think he's been a very strong president at the University of Utah," she said. "He has a good relationship with most legislators." And for all the legislators, she added, Machen was at least "down to earth" and "very approachable."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com