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Two Steps Forward, One Big Step Back

March 21, 2008

In one fell swoop but with two distinct actions -- recommending a well-regarded higher education leader to become president of the University of California and proposing a dramatic reshaping of the mammoth president's office -- the leaders of the university's Board of Regents on Thursday made major strides toward fixing a governance mess that has threatened to engulf it.

But the way the regents have gone about that business -- in what some faculty members and others describe as a secretive, renegade fashion -- has reinforced for some the perception that governance remains a serious problem at one of the country's most prestigious institutions.

California's board announced Thursday that its search committee had recommended Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System and former head of the University of Minnesota, as its choice to replace Robert C. Dynes as UC president. Many questions remained unanswered Thursday, such as how the university, fresh off its compensation controversy, planned to match or exceed the $750,000 annual pay that Yudof is receiving at Texas (Dynes earned barely $400,000), and why Yudof would risk leaving a comfortable position for a clearly challenging one.

Still, there was a widespread feeling that the university could not have done better than Yudof, especially since some national higher education leaders have suggested they wouldn't touch the job until the California system gets its governance mess straightened out.

"Mark Yudof is an outstanding choice to lead the University of California -- no one comes close," said David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the UC's Berkeley campus who co-wrote a book on educational policy and law with Yudof. "At both Texas and Minnesota, he has demonstrated a unique combination of commitment to academic values, skill at managing and restructuring complex institutions, and effective engagement with public leaders. These skills are critical to the success of chief executives in systems of public higher education today."

The UC board endorsed Yudof Thursday at the same meeting at which it considered a plan submitted by the university's provost and chief operating officer, Wyatt R. (Rory) Hume, that would slash the size and annual budget of the UC president's office by more than 20 percent in 2008-9 and focus its mission more narrowly on a handful of key priorities. For many people at the UC system, most notably board leaders like Chairman Richard C. Blum, the idea of reining in the sprawling president's office -- which contains nearly 2,000 employees, several times more than virtually any other public university central administration -- will be seen as a necessary reform and a significant improvement.

But those potential advances were offset in the eyes of some close observers of the University of California system by concerns about how they unfolded. Although the university has had a presidential selection process in place since last August when Dynes stepped down, Blum, who heads the search committee as well as the full board, reportedly took matters into his own hands in recent weeks, identifying Yudof as his choice, pursuing him aggressively without interviewing other candidates, and negotiating with him while simultaneously trying to persuade other regents to support him. In essentially conducting a solo search, critics say, Blum failed to involve not only the faculty and staff leaders who typically participate in such searches, but also his fellow regents.

"Blum took the reins: He went out and found somebody, negotiated it, and made a deal," said one senior UC administrator close to the situation, who asked not to be identified. "It is a breach of the usual consultative, collaborative model, and another demonstration of not joint governance."

A Chaotic Year (or Two)

For a university system as storied and almost revered at the University of California, the past several years have been enormously turbulent. A well-publicized compensation scandal badly embarrassed the 10-campus California system in 2006, weakening the authority of Dynes and emboldening regents, led by Blum, to step into what they perceived to be a leadership breach. A review of the university by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the wake of the compensation scandal revealed an underlying situation in which the regents, and particularly Blum, had run roughshod over the university’s central administration, engaging in practices -- and formally altering policies -- in ways that blur the historic line that has separated the regents’ overall governance responsibilities from the day-to-day management and administration of the UC system, which has historically (and appropriately) been the province of the president's office.

(The president of one major research university, who acknowledged having been approached by those searching for UC’s new chief, told Inside Higher Ed last month: “I can’t imagine a president worth his or her salt going in and allowing some of these things to continue.... The timing couldn’t be worse, and it’s going to be a serious impediment” for a leader familiar with traditional academic governance.)

While Blum has been criticized for his perceived heavyhandedness and for crossing lines he shouldn't, even some of those who criticized his style and tactics endorsed some of his substantive concerns -- including the belief that the president's office is bloated and involved in functions that more appropriately rest with officials on the 10 campuses, as laid out in a report last September by a consultant Blum retained.

Partly out of the fear that the university would be unable to attract top-notch candidates until it gets its house in order, some current and former University of California officials, including Charles E. Young, former chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles and ex-president of the University of Florida, had in recent weeks urged the regents to put the search on ice and bring in an interim leader to do some of the heavy lifting of reorganization (and possibly budget cutting) that could damage a new president.

But that apparently held limited appeal to Blum, who in a university statement declined further comment on the search process. Although university officials declined Thursday to describe the search process that led to Yudof's selection, word began leaking last week that Yudof and his wife, Judy, had been in Oakland, where the UC system is based, to "consult" on the search. He did not meet with faculty leaders or many senior administrators in the president's office, and a report in the Los Angeles Times Thursday that he was the leading candidate stunned many people on the campus.

That is not at all because Yudof, a former law dean and constitutional law professor, is poorly thought of; to the contrary, he is one of higher education's foremost leaders. As the former head of two major university systems, Texas and the University of Minnesota before that, Yudof is widely seen as a strong administrator who is both respectful of academic values and an advocate for the sort of accountability that is increasingly in vogue among politicians. Under Yudof's watch (and that of Charles Miller, who headed the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education after a stint as chairman of the University of Texas board), the Texas system put in place its own accountability system on which Miller modeled some of his ideas for the Spellings panel. (Almost as if on cue, the Texas system on Thursday unveiled a revamped Web site on affordability of the sort that Spellings and members of Congress have been calling for.)

The fact that many faculty members and other UC partisans consider themselves lucky to have gotten Yudof to consider the university's presidency, given the turmoil of recent months, may explain the fact that they were reluctant to publicly criticize the process that resulted in his selection. (The news release announcing Yudof's selection by the search panel quoted Michael Brown, the chair of the Academic Senate, as saying that "Chancellor Yudof brings strong leadership, a commitment to academic excellence and diversity, and a deep appreciation of shared governance. I believe the faculty will be pleased with his appointment.")

But it was clear, from their private comments and their e-mail messages, that many UC officials believe that Blum -- in trying to move the university forward -- instead had reaffirmed how little he understands, and perhaps respects, how a university like UC is supposed to work. He went out and found a president in the same way that a corporate board chair would recruit a CEO: commando style.

 

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