Mark Yudof became president of the University of California in 2008. Some timing. Since then, the university has seen its state funding, which accounts for about 13% of its operating budget, cut again and again.
Now Gov. Jerry Brown wants another $500 million out of UC’s bottom line. That’s a 20% drop in state dollars. With this cut, for the first time, students will shoulder more of UC’s costs than California will.
Yudof is a realist and a self-deprecating fellow who jokes about his girth. (If there’s the pancake version of a beer tummy, it’s his.) Behind his desk is a Patrick Leger illustration of the pudgy president wearing a matador’s suit of lights and, appropriately, facing a quartet of menacing bulls.
When Yudof was hired, UC Regent Richard Blum said, “He’s expensive, but he’s worth it.” A UC education itself is not the bargain it once was, but Yudof believes the brightest star in public higher education’s firmament can still be the saving of California -- if it can itself survive.
You’ve used the Ed Koch line, “How’m I doing?” After 2 ½ years, how’re you doing?
I think we’re doing well, and I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish. We have a $20-billion shortfall, long run, in the pension plan. I think it’s going to take 20 years to dig our way out, but we have a plan. We put the new [student] eligibility standard into effect; it’s going to be a less mechanical admission [process], looking at the whole student record. We’re putting in place a 10-campus payroll system. The faculty has been very loyal; we haven’t lost an untoward number of people.
Has it made any difference that you are the first UC president in decades to come into the job with no UC experience?
It has, from the standpoint of perspective. Sometimes I’m just blown away by things that you could never get done elsewhere that have gone on here forever. Other times -- I won’t tell you when -- I feel, why do you do it this way? It’s like changing a tire with your back to the tire. They may not [choose another non-UC person] again for another 100 years, given my track record! But it does give me a different perspective.
What do you think about Gov. Brown’s proposed cuts to UC’s funding?
I don’t blame Gov. Brown. I don’t blame the Legislature. This is where we’ve been heading for a very long time, so it’s sadness more than shock. In spite of all we’ve done to save money, raise fees, restructure our debt, this is going to cut into the muscle and sinew. A lot of people think there’s a lot of fat. We don’t have enough fat left to absorb a budget cut like this. We will set targets for reductions, and in March I’ll present the whole thing to the Board of Regents. I’m not planning on asking for a fee increase, at least not at this time; I can’t rule it out forever. We’re probably looking at layoffs and program cuts and things like that.
Remember, it’s not $500 million, it’s really closer to a billion, because unlike community colleges and state colleges, the state doesn’t give us money for employer contributions to the pension plan, so that raises the real cost [of the cuts] to $700 million; then you have union contracts, energy contracts, inflationary increases -- we really have a billion-dollar problem.
What’s your relationship with Brown?
I like him. He has a bear of a problem. My job is to explain [to him] how complicated we are. We roughly have a $20-billion budget; $3 billion comes from the state. That’s the English department, the Spanish department, economics -- that have difficulty generating the big outside grants. I love the humanities; I’m a creature of the humanities. But the engineering colleges are going to bring in more external research support, and that money’s crucial.
Californians need to understand: The wine they drink, that was done at UC Davis. We have people working on artificial retinas, on stem cells to cure macular degeneration, on alternative energy. The people and the governor need to understand.
[Former Gov.] Schwarzenegger had a huge regard for higher education. He understood its role in economic development. Great research universities take a long time to build and can be destroyed in a very short period of time; he understood that.
The Master Plan for Higher Education is more than 50 years old. Is it time to reconfigure it?
I would be open to looking at some of the features. We’re admitting the students as we are required, so that hasn’t changed. The tiering is very good, where you have the University of California, Cal State, community colleges. The biggest problem with the Master Plan is the state doesn’t want to pay for it. We have about half as much money per student, taking inflation into account, as we did in 1990, and that’s driving everything else.
You changed the terminology for what students pay, from “fees” to “tuition.”
When you’re paying $12,000 a year, it’s not like a beaker fee in a chemistry course. It’s a lot of money, $12,000 -- let’s call it what it is.
We’ve hit the students very hard, roughly 40% [of increases] in the last three years, I think. What we’ve given back? If you have a family income of $80,000 a year and you’re financial-aid eligible, you don’t pay tuition. I thought that was pretty good. And we didn’t apply the increase to students [with family incomes] between $80,000 and $120,000.
We can’t be free. We can’t be $100 a year. But we can serve students who are not served by the prestigious private institutions. Over half of our students are in families where English is not the primary language. We’re trying desperately to maintain our public mission: high-quality education, reasonable cost compared to most privates.
There’s talk of privatizing parts of the system, like UCLA’s Anderson School of Business.
Well, I don’t like the privatizing. Frankly, internally there’s a lot of criticism of the proposal. But in this environment, if there were areas in which you could charge more to help balance the overall budget, it’s very tempting. But I’ve not signed off on it, [and] it hasn’t gone to the board.
A man on my flight here wanted me to ask you if the big push for business, law, medicine careers -- big moneymaking careers -- means we’re slighting public service, the commonweal.
We try awfully hard there. The law school has turned heaven and earth to encourage students, with loan forgiveness and other things, to pursue public service. The Blum Center [for Developing Economies] deals with global poverty. The list goes on. That’s part of the public mission. We can’t dictate choices to people; we can educate them.
The governor once spoke of the “psychic rewards” of public service, as opposed to the dollar ones.
That’s an old statement; I don’t know if the governor would stick by it. I think there’s something to it, but I would put it two ways. Many university professors could pursue more lucrative careers. It took me virtually 10 years of law teaching to match the highest offer I got from a law firm coming out of law school. I didn’t regret it; I’d made my choices. So there is psychic benefit.
On the other hand we’re in a competitive business. Like any industry, [faculty] get [other] offers. Compensation is a significant factor. They say, “What am I doing here if I can get 50% more money from a private institution”? You have to be competitive. [In] the nation’s 62 top universities, our highest [paid] chancellor ranks 50th. And the chair of the group, from Santa Barbara, ranks dead last.
Your predecessor resigned after accounts of secret bonuses and salary deals. Now some well-paid UC people claim they had a deal for bigger pensions. It’s complicated -- a lot of the money wouldn’t come from public dollars but from profit-making parts of UC. What’s your stand on this? Isn’t the timing awful?
I don’t do secret deals; everything’s in the paper! It is a complicated problem. When I arrived I had no idea we had a ruling [on the pension deal] pending. We looked at it and said, this resolution was never implemented. [The potential beneficiaries] disagreed. They’re not dishonorable people. That is a good-faith interpretation. We think it’s wrong, and we think under the current financial circumstances it’s difficult to justify. Perhaps it was the tone of [their] letter; I think that it hit overly hard.
Is what we’re going through an aberration, or the new normal?
It’s probably the new normal. The truth is, the deterioration of [education] funding predates this horrendous Great Recession. It’s not like things went really great between 1990 and 2007, and then all of a sudden we had this problem. Some of it’s driven by demographics -- an aging population of voters [worried about] Social Security and police protection. We have a huge demographic of Hispanic youngsters. It’s no time to trim back and say, well, they’re not our children; well, they are our children, maybe not biologically, but they’re our children.
Who’s going to train the nurses, the veterinarians? Who’s going to invent the better solar panels? Who’s going to make sure the crops are safe? Business is not doing this.
If we eat our seed corn, to use a Texas analogy, there’s not going to be anything to support these programs. You have to create the basis for long-term prosperity.
Is that your sales pitch?
I think it is. We’re the best hope of getting California out of the ditch.
Students are protesting tuition hikes; have their personal stories gotten to you?
Look, life is not totally fair. Some people may have to borrow more money than they wanted to [or] drop out of school for a semester or a year. I worked my way through school; I understand how hard it can be. But when [students] stand up and say, “My mom makes $22,000 a year, and we can’t afford it,” something’s wrong because I put in place programs to deal with the poor. I say, write to me, and I’ll write to the chancellor: “There’s a young man, young woman on your campus who can’t afford to go to school. I want you to look into it immediately.”
This is an age of great anger. No one likes rising prices. They’re not the only ones suffering, but that’s cold comfort to many students and their families.
Are there myths out there, about things like secret endowments?
There are myths. They tell us we have an unlimited endowment; we don’t. It’s restricted. Everyone’s saying we’re giving big bonuses; we’re not. I’m not charging anybody tuition to pay a neurosurgeon at UCSF. These myths come about because it’s easier to have a bad-man theory of what’s going on than to say these are systemic problems. We are systematically underfunded.
What is your overarching message?
The University of California is still the model for the world. I attended a conference in Germany -- there’s UC envy all around. UC was the 20th century model; it needs to be the 21st century model worldwide. So let’s not blow it in the land where it all started.