Since 2008, Mark G. Yudof has led the 10-campus University of California system through a dramatic period of budget cuts and tuition hikes but also of widening financial aid and solid academic reputation. A constitutional scholar with a sardonic wit and a fondness for Tex-Mex food, Yudof recently announced he will step down in August and become a law professor at UC Berkeley. He cited gallbladder surgery and a broken arm over the last year or so and said it was a good time to leave since UC would be financially stronger with extra tax revenue approved by California voters in November. Yudof, who previously led public universities in Texas and Minnesota and is paid $591,000 annually at UC, visited The Times last week for an interview. This is an edited version of that conversation:
Your resignation announcement said your health problems were “largely overcome.” So why retire?
It’s not that I’m physically incapable. I’m feeling OK now. I will be 69 in October. I had these health problems and I’ve overcome them. But it focused my attention on my overall lifestyle. It’s time to go back to being a law professor and seeing my family.
After UC’s tough economic times, why not stay now that Proposition 30 has passed and education is receiving more revenue?
Prop. 30’s passage was a great day for higher education. It provides some light at the end of the tunnel. I think it’s nice to end on a more positive note. Tuition didn’t go up in 2012-13 and I’m virtually positive it won’t go up in 2013-14. But we are still in a very tight situation. There will continue to be hard issues.
Gov. Jerry Brown suddenly became active in UC policies and Mark Yudof resigns. Is there any connection?
There is really no connection because I’ve been pondering [resignation] for a long time. The governor is extraordinarily intelligent, he is extraordinarily passionate. It does require some energy to respond to his ideas, but I’m fine with that. That would not be a reason to move on. If anything, I have some confidence that out of this passion of the governor, some very positive things for the university can come.
What will you tell your successor?
You need to be like bamboo. You need to bend but you can’t break. You may need to figure out how does the faculty deal with a higher student-to-faculty ratio and what do you do with e-learning [online education]. I would say you have to be creative and you need not to be in a rut. But there are deeply ingrained values — like access, educating poor kids and high-quality research — you can’t give up on.
Do you have anyone in mind to take over?
I really don’t. This is a board of regents decision. I like to joke that I was the first outsider in a hundred years and it will be another hundred years until they pick another. And it could well turn out to be someone within UC, but at this time I would say 55-45 [percent] it would be someone from the outside.
You have nine massive undergraduate campuses. Isn’t there a lot of duplication of departments, and do you think the campuses should be more specialized?
It’s a very tough issue and we haven’t done nearly enough. I’ve even suggested joint departments where one department can cover two campuses. But it has to be done very carefully. We do need to have a physics department and an English department virtually everywhere and we probably need multiple nursing schools.... Part of the problem is the local effect of people saying we want to be Berkeley or UCLA. We want a big engineering college, we want a law school or we want a medical school. You have to be very circumspect since those are very expensive things.
So are the days of UC growth over?
The days of building new brick-and-mortar campuses may well be over. The new avenues to the University of California may be more online, more from community colleges. Actually investing a billion dollars and erecting a campus — I don’t know where the money would come from even if you could justify it.
Do you think online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses) threaten schools like UC?
I don’t. I think it will change the nature of higher education. I think there’s going to be more technology-assisted learning, but I still think there will be a lot of people who will want to attend a physical university and participate in the sports programs and attend lectures and have peer groups you can relate to. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a much more substantial portion of undergraduate credits are online or we had a larger group of students who start their college career in an online setting.
Many people in the public think UC’s top administrators like you are overpaid and don’t like hearing UC salaries being compared to private industry or private universities. How do you respond to that?
The people need not worry. We are not competitive and probably will never be competitive with either private industry or private universities of comparable stature. And we are low by major public university standards.... But I don’t expect [chancellors] to work for the same salaries you pay an executive assistant.... One of the things that keeps a university great is being competitive for very good people.
You’ve faced a lot of student protest issues, like the Occupy movement, the pepper-spraying at UC Davis, the Muslim student protesters at UC Irvine. What’s your position on their role in the university?
I am a 1st Amendment teacher. I’m not going to criticize people for saying things with which I disagree. But I have to say I’ve been the head of two other universities and I never had a board meeting closed down by protesters until I came to the University of California. California has a more robust 1st Amendment tradition and that’s fine. I’m in favor and deeply passionate about protecting free speech. But public bodies should be able to meet.
What’s been your biggest regret at UC?
I’ve always wanted a multi-year plan and some stability for [state] funding. We seem to lurch from crisis to crisis and that’s a frustration. More stability would have been very helpful, and I think we may be getting it with Proposition 30.