Wading through the grand narrative: The Yudof legacy

Carli Baker/Senior Staff

For the first time in five years, Mark Yudof will wake up Monday a free man. No longer will the outgoing UC president have to deal with angry accusations of screwing over students or unfairly bargaining with unions or ignoring the cries of protesters.

No longer will he be responsible for overseeing a $24.1 billion budget or managing a massive bureaucracy that supports more than 220,000 students and 170,000 faculty and staff.

After presiding over the UC system during five of the most tumultuous years of its history, Yudof stepped down Sunday to make way for former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. His departure signals the end of what may be the most significant chapter in Yudof’s decades-long career as an educator and administrator.

From blue collar to top-floor office

The president’s office is on the 12th floor of the UC headquarters building, an unassuming tower in the middle of Downtown Oakland where system administrators oversee programs that affect the broader UC system.

Yudof’s office is spacious and simple. Maps and certificates hang on the wall behind the desk, a traditional wooden worktable with a few colonial touches, including an hourglass, a quill feather and an inkwell.

But before the big desk and the colonial touches, Yudof was entirely blue collar.

The son of an electrician, Yudof completed his undergraduate education in just three years at the University of Pennsylvania and worked part time to pay for school, something he said has helped him better relate to the average worker.

Many of his detractors, however, may not be aware of his humble past. During an hourlong interview with The Daily Californian, Yudof recalled meeting with a group of union representatives who accused him of not understanding the struggles of working a physically demanding job.

“I looked at them and I said, ‘You know, I think I do understand, because when I went to undergraduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I pushed gurneys for three years,'” Yudof said. “Otherwise, I would not have been able to afford to be there.”

After graduating, Yudof practiced constitutional law for much of the late 1960s and 1970s. He worked with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and represented professors who he thought unfairly had their First Amendment rights curbed.

In 1971, he began teaching law at the University of Texas at Austin, where he spent the next 26 years in teaching and administrative positions. For the last 16 years, Yudof has led the universities of Minnesota, Texas and California.

Students “immediately assume if you’re in my job you must be someone who comes from a rich, hoity-toity-type family,” Yudof said. “Not true. I wish they’d know that.”

Tenure in office

In June 2008 Yudof stepped into an office that had been fraught with problems. His predecessor, Robert Dynes, announced his resignation in 2007, two years after it came to light that millions had been spent on extra pay and perks for administrators. Then, shortly after entering the position, Yudof was handed the first in a series of massive state budget cuts to the UC system.

“I knew we were in an economic downturn — I understood that,” Yudof said. “But I’m not a great prognosticator. We lost a billion dollars, and all of a sudden we’re bleeding.”

As budgets were slashed, tuition for Californians rose from a little more than $7,000 in 2008 to more than $12,000 today, and students throughout the UC system protested en masse.

Yudof said he harbors no ill will toward the protesters. However, impeding a public body such as the UC Board of Regents from meeting represents a lack of civility, he said.

“The real narrative is, you have the greatest public university in the world reacting to a billion-dollar reduction in their appropriation,” Yudof said. “And that we’re not building rock-climbing walls, and we’re not paying the top salaries to chancellors.”

Still, deconstructing what Yudof calls the “grand narrative” — the idea that the UC system is prohibitively expensive for poor students and that the administrative Office of the President is overrun with unnecessary bureaucracy — has been a challenge.

Yudof’s colleagues praised the job he did as president. Bruce Varner, chair of the UC Board of Regents, said Yudof helped increase efficiency and build an appropriate relationship with the board.

“In one word, he stabilized things,” Varner said. “At the end of the day, he’s a very caring leader and always cared about the students and their welfare.”

Even as tuition has soared, financial aid programs have expanded. In 2009 Yudof oversaw the implementation of the Blue and Gold opportunity plan for lower-income undergraduate students. At the time, the plan ensured that most undergraduates eligible for financial aid whose families earn less than $60,000 annually paid nothing in tuition. Today, the cap has expanded to include families whose income is below $80,000.

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who stepped down in June, said that the campus tried to minimize student debt and maximize accessibility and that Yudof’s efforts helped with that process.

“I think students who don’t necessarily fully appreciate this were very well served by him during his time,” Birgeneau said.

Challenges and criticism

Still, UC Student Regent Cinthia Flores said she would have appreciated a more thorough investigation into how to save money and raise revenue before the regents raised tuition. Additionally, Flores said, she wished there had been a better avenue for students to share their input on closing the budget shortfall.

The budget wasn’t Yudof’s only challenge. The UC Student Health Insurance Plan, the university’s attempt to have a systemwide health plan for all 10 UC campuses, experienced massive changes after it was discovered that the program was carrying a deficit of more than $50 million. Yudof said he hopes students will not have to pay for what he says are past actuarial errors.

Retaining top faculty has been difficult as well. According to Yudof’s State of the UC report from May, faculty salaries lag an average of 11 percent behind comparator institutions. Earlier this year, USC lured away two prominent neuroscientists — and their research funding — from cross-town rival UCLA, for example.

Attempts at tackling other challenges have seen mixed results. Yudof said the financing model for higher education is broken, and one of his efforts to fix the flawed model, online courses, has failed to catch on as he had hoped. “An Introduction to Information,” for example, one of a handful of online courses offered at UC Berkeley last fall, saw its enrollment drop nearly 25 percent over the course of the semester.

Yudof said he thought faculty and student opposition prevented online classes from catching on faster.

Labor relations, too, have been a challenge. Although eight unions have agreed to pension reforms, a union representing health care and service workers, AFSCME 3299, has yet to reach a deal on a new contract with the UC system. The university announced Tuesday that after months of negotiations, it will implement its latest proposal without agreement from the union.

“It’s an assault on collective bargaining,” said Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME 3299. “It’s an attack on the workers that make the university run. I don’t think we’ve been in a worse place than we are today.”

The legacy

Even with these challenges, Yudof says he hopes over time that his problematic “grand narrative” will clear.

“What I was trying to do was provide virtually a free education for as many students as possible,” Yudof said, “but those who could afford to pay, to charge them more. And all that got lost in the grand narrative.”

Mitchell Handler covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mitchellhandler.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UC tuition is more than $15,000 for the current academic year and was more than $8,900 in 2008. In fact, base-level UC tuition for resident undergraduates is $12,192 for the current academic year and was $7,126 for the 2008-2009 year, not including campus-specific fees and the cost of the university-run health insurance plan.