Early Earful from UC's New Chief

Less than a week after

April 3, 2008

Less than a week after formally being offered and accepting the presidency of the University of California, Mark G. Yudof is mindful of the fact that he is about to step into an enormous, and enormously complex, organization with many moving parts and lots of constituents. So in an interview with Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday (audio excerpts of which are available here), the departing chancellor of the University of Texas System made clear on multiple occasions, in relation to several contentious topics, that he would avoid "jumping in with two feet when I know not of what I'm speaking."

And indeed, on subjects such as how much the California system's president's office should shrink in size and scope, for instance, and whether his new university should or would alter its current stance of non-participation in the en vogue Voluntary System of Accountability that his current institution (and many other public universities) are embracing, Yudof chose his words carefully and emphasized that he was unwilling to make decisions without consulting with regents, campus chancellors, faculty leaders and others.

On those and other issues, he said, "If I'm going to be successful, I'm going to have to make sure the key stake holders have bought in or been persuaded."

That understandable reticence does not mean, though, that Yudof, who is widely known for his directness, skirted difficult questions or even entirely avoided making statements that might not be well received by all of those many constituencies at the University of California. In laying out the philosophies and approaches he has followed while heading the Texas and University of Minnesota systems, and that are likely to guide his time in California beginning in mid-June, Yudof said without equivocation that the UC president's office would shrink, that he would not tolerate intrusion by regents into the management of the institution, and that those at the university who have opposed public demands for accountability will find no ally in him.

But if some of the reforms Yudof is likely to pursue may threaten some of his soon-to-be constituents, his overarching world view -- that university systems should be enablers rather than impediments -- is likely to be welcomed by many at a university where the president's office is seen by many as an oversized and too-many-headed monster.

For Yudof, that is "deja vu all over again," he said, as one of his major tasks, and achievements, at the Texas system was transforming a "highly regulatory" system office that was referred to as "the abominable no men" into a smaller, more focused entity that narrowed its own portfolio but in turn heightened its expectations for campus leaders. "These people know what they're doing, they should run their campuses ... but they should be held accountable at the end of the year," Yudof said. "I'm very big on end of the year accountability, but I'm not very big on telling universities how to run their business, particularly when so much of it is faculty driven."

Although Yudof said he did not have enough information or knowledge at this point to know exactly what changes in the president's office are necessary at this point, "I do have the sense ... that there are too many people at the system," he said. Yudof said he knew that the actual decisions about which functions or offices of the president's office should be eliminated or scaled back or changed might be difficult; he compared the eventual process to the recommendations of base closing committees, where philosophical agreement can devolve into combat over details.

But he noted that one of the reasons why the UC job attracted him was because there is widespread agreement -- characterized in proposals like one last month from the university's current provost, which would cut the size and budget of the president's office by 20 percent next year -- that such changes are necessary. "Intellectually everyone's bought into it," he said, and "they want someone who will implement those changes and also look for other savings and economies."

UC's campus chancellors, who have bristled at times under what they characterize as a president's office that impedes ingenuity and agility, are likely to have found Yudof's message to them appealing. "I want you to think about three questions," the incoming president said he told the chancellors he met during the search process. "What business is the office of the president in that it should not be in at all, that adds to your workload and adds no value? Think about the things that inevitably have to be dealt with at the system level or are more efficiently dealt with at the system level. How can we make those processes work better? And third, what businesses should the president's office be in that it isn't in now that would help the campuses reach the higher levels" they strive for?

Relationship With the Regents

In the weeks leading up to Yudof's selection, many UC officials expressed concerns about whether the governance tensions that had gripped the university for more than a year -- in which regents stepped in (and, some acknowledge, overstepped their bounds) because they said they had lost confidence in President Robert C. Dynes -- would discourage leading university presidents from seeking the UC job. Several higher education leaders who had been approached about the position had said they would not consider it unless they were certain that the regents would change their ways, and even after Yudof's appointment, some academics wondered, as one commentator put it on his blog, "Is Mark Yudof crazy?"

Yudof did not shy away from questions about his discussions with his would-be bosses, the regents. It came up in virtually every discussion he had with board members, Yudof said, with one of the regents asking bluntly: "Aren't you concerned that we will be intrusive and that's going to be a problem for you?"

He said board members largely acknowledged that they had exceeded the normal boundary that separates regents' traditional policy setting role from the day to day management that is typically the province of a president, and that they insisted that "we want to return to normalcy in terms of the relationship between the board and the president," he said. "Intellectually everyone has bought into the idea that we need a strong president; and that we need to return to the traditional relationship between the faculty and the board and the presidents and the chancellors.

"And I made it very clear that those were the circumstances under which I would take this job," Yudof said, without noting, as was implicit in that statement, that he would not take the job under alternative circumstances.

But Yudof said he disagreed with those colleagues who suggested that the UC job was a risky one. "Sometimes the greatest opportunities to reform an organization occur when it has gone through a crisis," he said. "When there's an organization where seemingly everything is going well, but you have some structural problems, it's very difficult to fix them. My read, intellectually, was that there was really universal agreement and an opportunity for a president to come in from the outside and capitalize on it in a way that might not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago."

One area on which there may not be universal agreement when Yudof arrives at UC is on accountability, or at least some manifestations of it. Yudof has been among those college presidents (perhaps not surprising given that the chairman of his board during part of his time at Texas was Charles Miller, the Texan who headed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education) who have generally welcomed tough scrutiny of higher education and particularly embraced the Voluntary System of Accountability drafted by the country's two major associations of public colleges.

But where the UT system and many other state institutions have agreed to adopt the accountability system, including its controversial use of standardized tests to measure student learning outcomes, the University of California system has so far opted out, citing the testing requirement as something that “usurps the role of campus and departmental faculty in assessing student learning.”

In the interview Wednesday, Yudof described himself as a "big proponent of accountability" and "very sympathetic" to the voluntary accountability system and said that in today's public policy arena, "I think it's almost a quid pro quo" for public universities that "if you want more operating discretion and be able to make decisions at the campus level, we're all entitled to know how well you're doing."

But before reassessing the University of California's approach to the voluntary system, he said, "I want to get a side by side comparison ... of what the campuses are already doing" to measure their success.... I don't want to make any announcement today.... I really do have to consult with this."

While that issue may eventually produce some tension with some of his UC constituents, Yudof has to date been welcomed with a savior-like embrace by the many Californians who have watched their world-class university go through several years of hard times. His initial list of goals for his tenure -- rightsizing and improving the efficiency of the president's office, getting more UC campuses in the Association of American Universities, and strengthening collaboration between UC's academic and medical campuses -- is likely only to bolster his standing in the short term.

So far, he said, the biggest "blip" he's had so far involved his choice of clothing. He knew he'd soon have to replace all the burnt-orange ties he collected over the years in celebration of the University of Texas's colors. But those may not be the only ties he needs to get rid of, Yudof noted with mock chagrin. The red tie he wore on the day he was appointed to the California presidency, he was told by one UC official, was "a little too reminiscent" of the cardinal red favored by Stanford University, the Pac-10 rival of UC-Berkeley and UCLA.

We hear stores in Oakland have a nice selection of blue and gold ties.


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