Interview with UC President Mark Yudof (Abbreviated 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. The following is the abbreviated version of the interview that ran in the print edition. The complete interview can be found on our Web site, here.

New University: 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?
Mark Yudof: 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
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 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. Our labor costs are going up, our cost of technology is going up, our energy costs are going up and then on top of 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 fees .
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.: 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: Well, one of my hopes — I have a number of hopes — My view is your first obligation is to the students. 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? 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. 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.

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.
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?

New U.: The UC system is suffering a loss of somewhere around $200 to $400 million 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: 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 big 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.
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. 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?w
Yudof: 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.
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. We have seven of them out of our 10 institutions and have some others that are really pushing very hard to get there.

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.
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. 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. 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.
The best economic transfer we do every year is our 40,000 or so graduates. They go out and 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.

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.