Mark G. Yudof said Friday that he would retire after five years as president of the University of California, citing a series of unspecified health challenges and the university's apparent emergence from the worst of the financial problems that have dominated his term.
Yudof's retirement in August, at which point he will join the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley's law school, will mark the end of an administrative career that has made him one of the most prominent college leaders in the country. That is partially because of the visibility of the institutions he has led -- two of the largest university systems in the country, the University of California and University of Texas Systems, and the University of Minnesota -- but also because of his candor and wit (the latter of which sometimes got him into trouble).
His departure will also mean that all three of the state's massive higher education systems will have turned over their leadership since last fall, with both the California State University System and the California Community Colleges hiring new chancellors.
Yudof took over the presidency of the University of California at a time of great distress within what has historically been the country's -- and arguably the world's -- best public higher education system. UC took a public pounding in the legislature and among some students for its practices in compensating campus presidents and other senior administrators. But the more serious issue underlying the compensation scandal and other problems, by many accounts, was a governance crisis involving overreaching by regents and tentative leadership by system officials.
It was into that breach that Yudof stepped, to great acclaim, after a widely successful reign as chancellor of the University of Texas System. Such was the extent of the UC system's problems that some of Yudof's colleagues wondered whether the move was a good one for him, given his popularity and relative comfort in Texas.
But while he acknowledged that he had to be persuaded to take the job after first rebuffing inquiries about it, Yudof seemed clearly attracted by the prospect of helping a university that he described as "a model for the world" reimagine itself for the future.
Yudof took some strides in that direction early on, taking steps to shrink the size of the university's central office, pushing the university to be more accountable to taxpayers, and initiating a systemwide effort to put courses online.
But the landscape changed dramatically not long after he entered it, as the California economy turned sharply downward and the state's voters rejected ballot measures that would have mitigated the need for massive cuts to public higher education. In response, Yudof and the regents proposed a 32 percent tuition increase, arguing that such a "user tax" on students was necessary in the face of the state government's disinvestment.
Although students might have directed their ire at the legislature, Yudof -- as the public face of the institution -- became their primary target. (He did not help his own cause; known for his sardonic sense of humor, he asked a reporter comparing his salary unfavorably to that of the U.S. president's whether she would "throw in Air Force One and the White House?" That did not go over well.)
In November, after months of work by campus administrators and faculty groups, among many others, California's voters approved a ballot measure that warded off significantly more cuts to the state's public college systems, and appears to set the state's economy on a road to recovery.
Yudof cited that vote as making it a logical time for him to move on; he also said that he had weathered "a spate of taxing health issues" that had persuaded him that he needed to "make a change" in his professional lifestyle. He has seemed worn down of late.
He said that he and the university's faculty members, administrators and supporters had made it through the "rough passage" of recent years "with our fundamental attributes intact," noting among other things that the university had significantly increased the presence of low-income students on its campuses.
Yudof had clearly hoped in taking the UC job five years ago to aim higher than helping the university weather a brutally tough time. But leaders must deal with the times they're presented with.
"I will leave it to others to judge what difference my leadership made, if any, but I will say that I entered each day with a laser focus on preserving this great public treasure, not just in the present day, but for generations of Californians to come," he said. "And in the end, what matters most is what still remains: a vibrant public university system, the envy of the world, providing California with the beacon of hope and steady infusion of new thinking that are necessary for any society to flourish."