It is hardly uncommon for officials at organizations that have just hired new leaders to express great enthisiasm about the men or women they've just selected. It's a little rarer, though, when those expressions of satisfaction also ring loudly with wonderment, as if the organization is almost surprised by its good fortune in lassoing the candidate. And rarer still when the organization is widely viewed as a preeminent one that is accustomed to getting what it wants.
That was very much how it sounded, though, as the regents of the University of California system met Thursday to affirm their search committee's decision to hire Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, as president of the 10-campus UC system. One after another, board members spoke of their respect for Yudof and confidence that he would lead the university well, with at least three of seven or eight who spoke using some version of the phrase "right man at the right time."
"I don't imagine we could have found one person in the United States or abroad who is better suited for the job of president of the University of California than Mark Yudof," said Richard C. Blum, who as chairman not only of the regents but of its search committee was instrumental in the hiring.
But amid the praise, there were echoes that Blum and the other regents were aware that they may have been fortunate to have snagged a leader as well-regarded as Yudof, given the troubles the university system widely seen as the world's best has encountered in recent months and years, in the form of a highly publicized compensation scandal and, perhaps more ominously, serious concerns about governance and overstepping by the regents.
"At the end of the day, the way you make this university grow and prosper is by having a really first rate president of the system," Blum said at a news conference after the board meeting. "Well, guess what. We lucked out."
For his part, in his brief statements to the board and in most of his statements at the news conference, Yudof was nothing but gracious about how honored and excited he was to have been selected as president of what he said must be viewed as a group of campuses that "comprise the premier public university system in the world," an "institution of extraordinary academic stature" with a "tremendous faculty that is in some way its greatest asset."
But Yudof, a former law professor and dean who is in his sixth year as chancellor at Texas after a stint as head of the University of Minnesota system, also made clear that he had to be persuaded to give up his comfortable position in the Lone Star State for a politically volatile state at a time of great change for UC and California higher education.
In typical fashion -- Yudof is known as much for his good humor and candor as for his strong management and leadership skills -- he cited the "steady supply of breakfast tacos" alongside job satisfaction and his $780,000 annual compensation package as his reasons for originally rebuffing the interest that those searching for California's new president originally showed in him last fall.
But Yudof was was ultimately drawn, he said, by a feeling that "this was the place to be," helping the University of California, "a model for the world," re-imagine itself for the future. He said it was too early to lay out an agenda for his time in the job, but he then proceeded to do so at least in part. He said he would bring his ideas about the appropriate (and inappropriate) roles of university systems to a central administration that has been criticized as bloated, and probably made at least a few UC faculty members nervous when he noted that he would continue to champion "accountability" (his board chair during some of his years in Texas was Charles Miller, who headed Margaret Spellings's controversial higher education commission). At the urging of its faculty members, the University of California opted not to participate in the Voluntary System of Accountability that many public university leaders, including Yudof, have embraced.
"I'm very big on campuses exercising discretion," he said, "but you have to be able to prove that you're accountable, to students, faculty, board members.... I think that the University of California each day has to say to itself, 'We need to gain the respect and trust and confidence of the people of California. That should not be taken for granted."
While Yudof said UC overcame his initial reluctance, the university clearly had to pay up, financially and otherwise, to do so. Although the university took a pounding in 2005 and 2006 over its compensation practices, Blum appears to have negotiated a deal -- which did not, at least so far, raise a public stink -- that would pay Yudof annual compensation valued at $828,000 a year, hundreds of thousands more than previous UC presidents have earned.
Yudof also made clear -- in response to a reporter's question about concerns from faculty leaders and senior university officials that Blum and other regents have, as Regent Norman J. Pattiz put it Thursday, been "micromanaging" the university -- that he had both "sought and obtained" assurances that the board would back off.
"I didn't want the job if the university system would be run by the Board of Regents," Yudof said bluntly. "I think you will see a return to more traditional boundaries."
Blum agreed, acknowledging to a greater extent than before that board members, troubled by what they perceived to be a lack of leadership from the university's central administrators, "became much more focused, arguably in some areas too focused," on managing some aspects of the university. The charge that the regents engaged in micromanaging, he said Thursday, "frankly is fair."
"Having said that," he continued, with his newly selected president by his side, "I do believe that none of us really wanted to do [that].... We all were looking for a strong leader so we could go back to doing what boards normally do. This is the outcome we all looked for."