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Good Humor Man

July 2, 2010

Mark Yudof probably didn’t think the job would come with so much tweeting.

Two years into his tenure as president of the University of California, the face of what’s often called the nation’s premiere public institution describes himself as a modern-day advocate-in-chief. When he’s not wooing donors the old-fashioned way at dinner parties, Yudof is pumping iTunes executives for ideas on course content distribution or sharing kernels of wisdom on social networking sites. His most re-tweeted post to date? The discovery of a $2 parking spot in San Francisco.

“I thought that’s worth telling the nation about,” Yudof said in a recent interview. (A podcast of excerpts of the interview is available here.)

Yudof wants to be ever-present, constantly reminding policy makers and taxpayers of the jewel that is the University of California. It’s imperative that the university’s value be drilled home at every opportunity, he says, given the fact that persistent budget cuts stand to threaten the research and teaching enterprise.

“I would say three quarters of my time is what I’d call advocacy. It’s not all defense. Some of it’s offense,” he says. “But you spend an awful lot of time [getting the message out]. I do Facebook and Twitter; we have little film clips and I get out on the road and I give speeches, write my op-ed pieces and all of the rest of it. So a lot of it is advocating for the university, rallying the troops.…”

In short: Yudof thinks exposure is good. But is it? Known for his wisecracks, Yudof has learned the hard way that getting his message out in any conceivable medium comes with its own inherent set of risks. Never was this more apparent than a year ago, when Yudof submitted to the no-doubt-flattering – yet often perilous -- Q&A with Deborah Soloman, a New York Times Magazine writer known for eliciting candid responses with blunt or sarcastic questions.

True to form, Yudof seemed to leave no joke untold in the interview -- even as he was pushing for a historic 32 percent tuition increase and a painful furlough plan. Asked whether any state university administrator should earn more than $400,000 -- the salary of the president of the United States -- Yudof quipped “Will you throw in Air Force One and the White House?” Then there was the part where Yudof seemed to compare his job to managing a cemetery, prompting some to say he viewed them as "cadavers."

The backlash was swift and harsh, and Yudof now says he really didn’t see it coming. As for regrets? He’s had a few, but then again …

“I didn’t anticipate [the negative reaction], and I still think [the critics] lacked a sense of humor,” he says. “I’ll just tell you my honest view: I’ve never apologized for it. You tell a self-deprecating joke and someone says ‘You’re treating us like cadavers.’ Give me a break.

“And I think you’re hearing [criticism] from a relatively small minority. When I saw President Obama on television at the -- was it the National Press Club? -- that he told a joke about drones; I thought it was pretty damn funny. But somebody had to write that the president wasn’t taking this seriously.”

In a job where political capital is king, however, Yudof concedes he might answer a few questions differently if he had it to do over again.

“But my heart wouldn’t be in it,” he says with a laugh. (Offered an opportunity by Inside Higher Ed to be asked, and to answer, some of the questions again, Yudof demurs, soberly.)

While Yudof isn’t ready to check his personality at the door – “You really do have to be your authentic self” -- he says he’s consciously building coalitions. Among the most difficult constituencies to sway have been students, who have responded to tuition hikes with vigorous protests, often turning their anger directly at Yudof – rather than the lawmakers in Sacramento who’ve set the state’s budget priorities.

Indeed, when Berkeley students protested en masse this spring, they marched to Oakland -- home of the university system’s headquarters -- where some then proceeded to occupy a busy freeway, snarling traffic and prompting 150 arrests.

“The bill of goods was I was personally responsible; I raised fees because it felt good,” Yudof says of the mood earlier this year. “But I think we’re winning that one. People are getting a better understanding that the nearest authority figure is not necessarily your enemy. And I didn’t cut our budget by 20 percent, and I didn’t start the foreclosures, and I didn’t urge people to securitize mortgages and I certainly didn’t advocate massive unemployment.”

Yudof sounds more optimistic about the year ahead, in part because he sees some progress on the goals he set coming into the job. Not surprisingly, those accomplishments have more to do with trimming budgets through "efficiencies" than starting grand new programs. Indeed, Yudof is particularly fond of mentioning that his own office has reduced positions by about 500 people, to a total of around 1,400.

The university’s Commission on the Future is also busy hammering out strategies for a more sustainable way forward in a time of diminishing resources. Some of the proposals surfacing in the commission -- reducing the size of the faculty, for instance -- could have deleterious consequences, Yudof concedes. You can only reduce faculty numbers so much before student/faculty ratios increase, prompting tough choices on whether the university will accept larger class sizes as a new reality or move increasingly and deliberately into expanded online education. Moreover, reducing faculty positions on one side of the ledger can easily translate into losses in research dollars on the other.

While Yudof seems to be suggesting any solution is on the table, he says he won’t revisit the “quick fix” of furloughs the university employed last year.

“The furloughs are not sustainable -- not when you’re competing [for] the best faculty,” he says. “We’re looking for ways that don’t involve borrowing billions of dollars and leaving it to one of my successors to figure out how to repay it. I’m just not going to do that. So if I don’t win any popularity contests, so be it. The quick fix and borrowing and all of that is the way of the state of California, and I just don’t want it for the University of California.”

Given the turmoil Yudof has dealt with at the helm of UC, it’s easy to wonder whether he misses his days as head of the University of Texas System and questions his decision to leave. While it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses in Texas since Yudof left -- 5 percent budget cuts of $176 million for the system -- the downturn there has hardly been on the order of magnitude of California’s crisis, where $813 million, or about 20 percent, was carved from the university’s budget last year.

“You’d prefer to have new programs and new initiatives and all that stuff, but there’s a whole lot at stake in this great university and it gives you a sense of purpose,” Yudof says. “I’m fine. I feel comfortable having made the move, and I wish economic circumstances were better.”

Yudof’s successor in Texas, Francisco G. Cigarroa, smiled when asked (during an interview of his own with Inside Higher Ed) what he thinks of Yudof’s move.

“One thing I learned,” Cigarroa said, “is it’s never greener on the other side of the fence.”

 

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