This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Mark Yudof on policy, priorities and plans

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Mark G. Yudof, the head of the University of Texas system, is preparing to become the new UC president at a precarious time when state budget cuts threaten to underfund critical priorities, including growth in student enrollment, increases in faculty and staff compensation and graduate student support.

The highly respected higher education leader, who takes office June 16, is already transitioning into his new job. He has met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and attended the May 13 inauguration of Chancellor Gene Block.

Recently, Yudof participated in a conference call with editors of UC’s faculty and staff newspapers systemwide. Here is an edited version of this Q&A:

Q: What areas do you think will need your immediate attention when you come on board on June 16?

Yudof: The first priority for me is [streamlining] the Office of the President. It’s clear that we are overstaffed. My feeling is that the real action is on the campuses. So any activity in the Office of the President needs to add value to the work of the campuses. I really need to get the trains running on time here. I’ve got to fix some systems, I need to cut the budget, I need to figure out what businesses we should and should not be in. I need a lot of feedback from the campuses: Are we part of the problem, or are we part of the solution? That [feedback] will tell me a lot about what I need to do in my job.

I’m not planning on any major initiatives [for OP]. Frankly, I want to save that money and put it to use on the campuses. We need competitive faculty and staff salaries. Students are in need of financial aid. There are a lot of good [ways to use] that money.

Q: In 2003 at the University of Texas, you faced a very similar crisis in state funding. Were there solutions from that earlier UT crisis that will help you tackle UC’s problems?

Yudof: When you have major cuts in state appropriations, there is no silver bullet. We were able to get greater control over tuition -- tuition was very low at that time. Unfortunately, we had to raise tuition significantly to cover part of the shortfall because the quality would have deteriorated.

If you don’t replace some of those dollars, then class access, counseling, admissions and all the other activities of a campus are going to suffer. We did some pruning systemwide. Unfortunately, the student-faculty ratio went up at some of the campuses because the cuts were so large, which was not good. The system tried to help out through tuition and a number of the technicalities allowing the campuses to retain more of their indirect federal cost. That was helpful.

Q: Could you comment on which campuses in the UC system are flagship campuses, and how do you propose to strengthen them? What does that mean for the other campuses?

Yudof: That sounds like a trick question. (Laughter) I’m a Philadelphia lawyer -- I can either weasel out of it, which I’ll probably do, or just take the Fifth Amendment. You know, I don’t think of it that way. You’ve got six campuses that are members of AAU, which is the premiere group of universities in America. You have Riverside and Santa Cruz, which seem to be well on their way to becoming members of the AAU in terms of the research profiles of their faculty. And then you have Merced, which was recently established.

These are all very substantial, credible, research-oriented universities that have strong graduate programs and faculties. It’s just like “Sophie’s Choice.” If I pick out only two of my children, I’ll be in trouble.

Q: You’ve been meeting with the governor and some policymakers in Sacramento. Do you feel you’ve made some headway in impressing upon them the value of public higher education?

Yudof: It’s a little hard to tell, you know, when you meet for the first time. You always shake hands, you smile and, in the case of the governor, I went out to a tent and smoked a cigar with him. He almost lectured me on the value of higher education and how important he thought it was for the economy of the state. So I thought it was cordial, but I didn’t want to ruin it by getting into the gory details [of the budget]. After June 16, there will be time.

But what did impress me was that, clearly in the case of the governor, he does get it – that curiosity-driven research is a good idea, that a strong university can drive the economy, that UC is not just a factory that just churns out students. If there’s something that separates California from other states, it’s this fabulous infrastructure of first-class universities. He gets it, and I felt that legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle get it.

Q: How will running UC be different from running the University of Texas?

Yudof: California historically is much more centralized. There’s really nothing like it, not in New York, Boston, Texas or Michigan. And so, I’m unaccustomed to having a centralized admissions process In Texas, some of the institutions are basically open admission; you don’t really have much of that in the UC system. We’re more heterogeneous [in the] the Texas system. The UC campuses are actually more homogeneous. That is, Irvine is more like UCLA than the University of Texas of Brownsville is like UT Austin.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by giving the campuses more authority?

Yudof: I’ve had chancellors complain to me that it takes three months to get a vice chancellor’s appointment approved. I don’t think that should be the case. I don’t think I know better who the vice chancellor should be. I think there should be accountability. But the chancellor, with advice from the faculty and staff, ought to be able to pick the deans and vice chancellors.

I don’t think I should be approving lots of different things on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think we’re smarter than the people on the campuses. We’re certainly further away from where the action is. That’s what I meant by giving more authority [to the campuses].

Q: How should campuses handle extremists such as tree sitters who deeply disagree with UC’s plans?

Yudof: As a lawyer, my feeling is you enforce the law and use the legal process to deal with it. I frankly don’t understand the property rights of tree sitters or why it takes time to get them out of the trees.

My commitment is to academic freedom and free discourse on campus. At some point, [sitting in a tree for awhile] would prevent the campus from functioning. If universities are doing wrong, then you certainly have the right to protest. But if you’re holding up the university from carrying out its official purpose, that’s another problem. And that’s a First Amendment issue.

Q: There’s a widespread perception, particularly on the part of the press, that the university is on the defensive. Do you have any thoughts about how the university might be more proactive?

Yudof: Frankly, when you play defense, you lose. My feeling is that if you have something embarrassing, you get it out and get it out quickly, full disclosure. You’ve got to build a level of public trust and support to get you over the crisis.

Q: In a 2002 essay you wrote for Change Magazine, you predicted the development of what you called the hybrid university when there would be less and less state support, higher student fees and more private donations as the model of a public research university changes. Has your view changed at all?

Yudof: It’s not my formula. Please don’t think this is what Mark Yudof recommends. I wouldn’t say this is the best way to run the world, but this is the way I see it.

I see nothing in the last five years that lead me to believe that state legislatures have stepped up to the plate to put the type of money we need in higher education. Tuition and fees have continued to rise. We have more and more capital campaigns of over $1 billion. We have more private/public collaborations.

I’m frankly very worried about it. I don’t know where all this is going. I called it “hybrid” because I thought “privatization” wasn’t really quite the right word. But it’s still the University of California. But we seem to have lost some of our gloss as a public good. And that’s been true in every state I know, with the possible exception of North Carolina.

Part of it comes with an aging population and what people in this age group tend to support. That worries me. That may change in California with a large Latino population and others with somewhat larger family sizes. We may see more support for higher education in states like Florida, California and Texas and maybe Arizona. But when you look at the older segment of the population, people prefer tax cuts, healthcare and locking up the bad guys in prison.

Q: Will you be visiting each of the UC campuses soon?

Yudof: I certainly will be visiting the campuses although I haven’t quite decided on the format yet. I’m a longtime academic, but I have not visited all the UC campuses, and I need to do that. I don’t want to make it too elaborate. I want to show up and meet the people on campus and take a look at the buildings and so forth. I don’t want any fancy dinners or anything like that; I’d like to keep it fairly informal.

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