Interview with UC President Mark Yudof (Full Version)

President Mark Yudof is the current President of the University of California and began his term earlier this summer on June 16. Prior to serving in this capacity, Yudof worked as the Chancellor of the University of Texas System from 2002 to 2008 as well as the President of the University of Minnesota from 1997 to 2002. The following interview took place on Sept. 9, and any references made to recent events should be taken from that perspective.

New University: So we just have some pretty basic questions here about the regent’s meeting as well as the UC system in general.
President Mark Yudof: Yes sir, I’m happy to answer to the best of my ability.

New U.: I guess my first question is, currently you are scheduled to attend the UC Regents meeting at UCI from Sept. 16 to Sept. 18. What do you see as the key topics of conversation being discussed at this meeting that are most central to UCI?
Yudof: We’ll have a lot of discussions, which are real important for UCI—and by the way it will be my first trip to the campus and not my last because I will be coming back at some point to meet with students and faculty and so forth. One very important thing is we’re going to have a discussion of revising the eligibility standards for admission to the university. We do this periodically and there’s a lot of discussion about what sort of revisions we should have. Today, we’re supposed to have 12.5 percent of the eligibility zone, we’re actually closer to 15 percent, so we need to figure out how to get back to 12.5 percent and there’s a proposal that came out of the academic assembly. There will not be action at this meeting, but this is a real opportunity for a lot of people to express their point of view and if you’re there [you can] listen and see what you think of that discussion. We obviously have problems with seismically damaged buildings and buildings that [aren’t] up to the new California codes.
We’re trying to figure out particularly in such lean times, financially, we want to make sure the students, the staff and everyone else is as safe as we can make it. We’re going to talk about how we might address some of those issues. And we’ll have some extensive discussions on the budget process because we don’t have a state budget and even under the governor’s — what’s called the governor’s revised budget — our campuses would have to cut over $100 million. We’re down a little bit in money, but then there’s inflation costs, there’s some built-in faculty compensation and there’s stipends for graduate students. So I would pay close attention to that because that budget crunch is really a problem. Now, we may not have answers unless [hopefully], by next week, the governor and the republicans and democrats in the legislature will have agreed on a budget compromise and we can go forward, but it’s very late. We may have a little bit of discussion of financial aid and I guess what I would say is important from your perspective is, we’ve got the students covered when it comes to California grants. We feel that even though the money isn’t paid from the state in California grants, we have other accounts that we can draw from to make sure that students get their money in a timely fashion and then we’ll pay ourselves back later. Now, we can do this probably through the end of November. Now, if we don’t have a budget by the end of November we are in some significant trouble.

New U.: You mentioned the late budget and how it will affect the UC system. As president and beginning your presidency, what difficulties are there in facing that?
Yudof: Well, there are a lot of difficulties. One of the things I mentioned is even if we don’t do anything new or innovative to improve the place, every year our costs go up. Think about utilities and energy costs that have gone up so much. And we have lots of employees, whether it’s the people who work in our dining halls, the people who maintain the grounds, the professors, the admissions officers, financial aid packagers and people who deliver to student services. Our labor costs are going up, our cost of technology is going up, our energy costs are going up and then on top it we’re serving more students and, frankly, the last few years, the state budget really has not adequately addressed any of those issues and that’s what’s put all the pressure on student fees. God knows we all hate to raise fees and its not first on my list – its near dead last – but the problem is how to keep these great universities going when your appropriations are flat or falling in real dollar terms, after you’ve taken count of enrollment and growth of inflation. So, it’s a very tough environment. All I can say is this is happening all over the country. It’s just not true that California is an anomaly. These are discussions taking place in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Florida and Texas. Unfortunately, higher education budgets are under a lot of pressure.

New U.: Recently, they passed the first new financial higher aid bill in the last ten years. Is this going to have a significant affect on financial aid for UC students?
Yudof: I think you’re talking about—in Congress—it’s the Higher Education Reauthorization Act.
New U.: Correct.
Yudof: The Pell Grants will rise significantly and its projected out over a number of years and I’m sorry, I just don’t remember the numbers, but if its in the low four thousands now, it would rise over five thousand over some period of years. So, I think that is a positive step for students who come from low income families. It varies, but families under $40,000 are most likely to qualify for Pell Grants and that, I think, will be very constructive. Most of the other features of the act, I’d have to look at it more carefully. I just don’t recall what the precise impact on students would be. I’m always concerned about the ability of students to obtain low interest loans and Congress has taken some steps to bolster the student loan market [in the face of] the national, financial and mortgage crunches.

New U.: In July, you announced plans to put into action a public accountability effort. What are your greatest hopes for this program and what impact may it have on the UCI campus specifically?
Yudof: We’re going to have the first draft of this — it may be at our retreat, not at the regular board meeting. Well, one of my hopes — I have a number of hopes — My view is your first obligation is to the students. So, there’ll be a lot of indicators of student success, and what is the access by students for financial aid? How are we doing in terms of diversity? I will also ask tough questions like, what’s our fourth-year or fifth-year or sixth-year graduation rate? How well are we doing at admitting transfer students from community colleges? We have a big interest in students succeeding and so a lot of the measures will be student success measures. Some of the measures will be faculty success measures. How well do they do at bringing in research grants? How well are we doing at being competitive to keep our best faculty? That’s real important for Irvine and for attracting new faculty. Did they get into an institute of medicine or national academies? We’ll be looking at fundraising. Are we raising enough money? How do we raise more money? Do we have a structure in place to do it? We need endowments to support the faculty, we need scholarship endowments. There’ll be a whole series of indicators like these.
Part of its design is that when I go to the legislature, I can say, ‘When you entrust your money to me — not to me personally, but to the university — we’re accountable for it. We’ll tell you what’s happening.’ Part of it is to be accountable to you, your parents and families, to see when you pay those fee bills, what are you getting back? How well is the campus doing? How are the students doing? So, I’m a big believer in that form of accountability. And part of it is so we can manage the place better. If we think we’re not doing as well in diversity in some of the colleges, do we have a plan? It has to comply with Proposition 209, but what’s our plan to address it? And you have to look at the numbers. I think we need metrics. You always have to ask, ‘How well are we doing?’ But you also have to ask, “How well are we doing compared with other folks?” That’s important. If you want competitive faculty salaries, you can’t just look at Irvine. In fact you can’t just look at University of California campuses. You have to look at salaries that Michigan is offering or Virginia or Illinois or for that matter USC or Stanford. Then you can try to figure out whether we’re competitive. Those are the types of things we’re doing and it’s for internal management purposes. It’s also to take our major stakeholders, like parents, students and taxpayers, members of the legislature and the board of regents and say, ‘Here’s how we did last year.’

New U.: One of the things you mentioned was admitting transfer students from community colleges. As UC President, what measures will you take to improve the relationship between the UC system and California’s community colleges?
Yudof: I think that’s an excellent question and the honest answer is I don’t know all the actions I would take and I’m still trying to learn the terrain. But if it’s like other states, obviously you want to make sure you have adequate articulation agreements, meaning that you’ve agreed in advance what credits you will take from the community colleges so [they won’t lose time with non-transferable credits].
Another thing is you have a very substantial presence — meaning the four year institutions — on the community college campuses because you have to get the message out to the students that they’re good students, that they’re receiving a good education at community college and they can succeed in a four-year institution, even if they haven’t thought about it before. That’s a little bit of handholding and a little bit of jawboning, but its really to instill the idea that maybe you’re the first in you’re family to go to college, but you really can do it. And we have a lot of confidence in that. We know that transfer students do very well in the UC system. One of our problems is just convincing enough students to apply.
A third thing is we know there’s a big transition financially from a community college to a four-year college. So one of the things I want to take a careful look at is if we have set aside enough financial aid that when you go from an institution that charges a couple of thousand dollars or more to one that’s charging over $7,000. Have we looked at our structure of financial aid and not awarded all our money to first-time freshman, but reserved some of the money for the transfer students?
And then my plan is to talk to Senator Scott, who will be the new head of community colleges in the state and try to set up some interactions so that we can get their perspective and jointly work on these problems. I would like the day to come when a community college admission is really a good ticket, not only to admission to the community college, but everyone understands that it’s a really good pipeline to get into – and graduate from – a four-year institution.

New U.: The UC system is suffering a loss of somewhere around $200 million to $400 from the latest budget cuts. The UC worker’s strike that hit the UC system last May and June is bringing to light that there’s a disparity in paychecks between our UC workers and comparable employees in the state system. What is being done to alleviate that in light of the budget constraints?
Yudof: That is a tough situation. I’m going to start out by saying I come from a union family. My father was an electrician so I have a great deal of sympathy, particularly for raising the minimum wage. You know when you’re paying $4 a gallon for gasoline and rent may be going up and the cost of some food and other things, to me that is a problem for these families. We’ve gone back to the bargaining table. When I came in I literally tripled the amount of money we put on the table to negotiate with the unions. We haven’t reached a settlement yet, but I’m hopeful. We put a lot more money on the table and I actually thought we were reasonably close with what are called the ‘patient care workers’ as opposed to the ‘service workers.’ The second observation I’d make is there’ll always be market differentials and I would believe so. If you hire a Ph.D. in molecular biology, you’re probably going to pay that person more than a maintenance worker. From my perspective, apparently when you hire a big time football coach, you pay him a whole lot more than you pay a president of the university.
So there are certain market factors that are built-in, but I also think that we should be a moral employer that we can be proud of. I would like to work these issues through with the AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees] unions. I think we’re close in some areas and not very close in other areas. I’d like to see the minimum wage go up so that we can feel better for even the worse off workers. Our average salaries are actually much higher than the minimum. Some places pay more and the union has documented that, but I’m not sure we’re that far apart. I’m not sure we’re that far off from what the going rate is elsewhere. That’s something that we could discuss, but this all takes place in an environment where we don’t have a lot of money to burn. That’s really a problem, but I’m hoping we can reach a settlement that is fair to the employees who do everyday work for each one of us and still keep us in a position where we can handle the budget implications. Remember we have many labor unions that represent many different groups. We’ve got thousands and thousands of unrepresented staff. We’ve got faculty salaries that may not be competitive. We have graduate stipends where they’re not as competitive as we’d like for graduate students. There are many justifiable claims out there, but at the end of the day we also have to balance the budget.

New U.: You gave some comparisons between the UC system and other institutions of higher learning. How does the UC system function as a unique system within the world of academia and how do you account for these unique aspects?
Yudof: It’s an interesting question. I think we are unique in many ways. The admission system is relatively unique. A student can apply to multiple campuses at the same time and under eligibility standards that are system-wide. I was in Minnesota, Michigan and Texas and I don’t really know of another system that quite operates that way. So, then we do many things here, which are more centralized. We run the University of California Retirement Plan. It’s very unusual for a university to run its own retirement plan, managing $40 billion in assets. The scale system, which tries to accommodate both internal equity for faculty scales and competitiveness with other universities is relatively unique in my judgment. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
It’s also unique because it’s the world’s best public university system. There are more flagship campuses like Irvine, Santa Barbara and Berkeley than any other public university system anywhere in the world, certainly in the United States. Most of them, like in New York, Florida, Texas, Minnesota or Arizona, they’re lucky if they have one flagship campus. We have seven of them out of our 10 institutions and have some others that are really pushing very hard to get there.
Its hard to say — what was it, the Master Plan — was an act of genius and Governor Brown, Pat Brown and Clark Kerr, who was then the [University of California] President, you need leadership and you need vision and they had it. You had a relatively affluent state which, even going back to 1960, had a higher budget than most other states – along with a Mediterranean climate and lots of beaches. A lot has changed since 1960 and I think we have to try to figure out what works today as opposed to what worked almost 50 years ago. But there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re unique both in our achievements and in many of our organizational characteristics.

New U.: On the opposite side of that question, as you have experience in the world of academia outside of the UC system, what have been some of your successes that you see could potentially work if implemented into the UC system?
Yudof: Well, I have a number of things I’m working on. At one time we had over 2,000 employees. My judgment and the judgment of the board of regents was that we had too many employees doing too many bureaucratic things. I don’t remember the exact number, but we’re down from about 2,000 to 1,350 employees. As we speak today, we’re in the process of reducing our budget so that every dollar we spend in the office of the president is a dollar that is not available to the campuses for scholarships, faculty salaries and all the rest of it.
So, I think it’s very important for us to be appropriately sized and that’s one of the things I want to do. I want to make sure everything that we do is value added, that we’re facilitating the work of the campuses and not impeding it. And that means looking at virtually everything we’re involved in, like the University of California Press, the digital library, like all the campus grants that we make. But everything has to come under scrutiny to make sure we’re getting a worthwhile return because if we’re not, we’re better off leaving the dollars on the campuses and let it be spent on campus priority. So, I would consider honing the office of the president to be a high priority and a sign of success.
I would like to see more collaborations and more joint efforts so that we have more campus things going on, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. More cooperation between people who are engaged in the health profession, medical research and engaged in academic research. We have a bill pending in the legislature which would establish a climate change institute, where there’d be a substantial amount of money each year for the next 10 years to do needed research on climate change. We have a fabulous track record, but I would like to see it become even better.
One of the jobs of the University of California is to help Californians resolve their problems, be they alternative energy, environmental concerns, climate change concerns, or helping with urban planning. It could be lots of things. We have a lot of expertise and a lot of talent in our student body and I’d like it to be said that we stepped up, and when there was a big issue in California that the University of California was a part of the solution.
I’d also like us — and I think we are — to be the economic driver. The best economic transfer we do every year is our 40,000 or so graduates. They go out and they do brilliant things and they have careers, establish companies and write great novels and poetry. But, I also think technology transfer is important. I’d like a cure for Parkinson’s [disease] to come from the University of California. I’d like the latest in the way of heart procedures and ways to save lives to come from here. The treatment of chronic diseases and the like, I’d like it to come from the University of California.
So, those are the sorts of things I have in mind. We have to get our financial house in order, but that’s not the end of the game. Once it’s in order, you need to make sure you’re doing all these other things right.

New U.: Is there anything you would like to add?
Yudof: I guess what keeps me going in this job is that we have great universities as part of the University of California. You can measure it by our students, you can measure it by the research they do and you can measure by the impact on their local communities, their K-12 activities and all the rest. So, we had the disclosure scandal, we have other traumas, I’m not saying those aren’t important, and certainly I have to try to figure out the finances and make sure everything goes right. But beneath all that, it’s really a structure of excellence and when I come to work in the morning, that’s what keeps me going. This is a great institution, it’s really worth preserving and it may sound a little mushy, but I really think its true.

New U.: Thank you so much for your time.
Yudof: Okay, thank you.