Yudof’s Oil: Mill Baby Mill!

In December 2010, the UC Irvine Bookstore erected signs announcing, “Foodies, Rejoice!” advertising the President’s Blend olive oil selected by UC President Mark Yudof. At $12 a bottle, the gourmet olive oil reflects high-quality and extensive agricultural research done by the UC Davis Olive Center, producers of a number of olive oil blends including The President’s Blend, which is being sold at all UC bookstores.

The notions of a “Yudof’s Own” olive oil seems whimsical and potentially tasty to Mediterranean culinary enthusiasts, yet in light of the severe budget problems looming for the UC, the public gesture seems frighteningly out of touch with students and student interests.

Yudof stopped by the UC Davis Olive Center on Sept. 30, 2010, to give his official seal of approval to a special President’s Blend of extra virgin olive oil, an idea proposed by UCD’s Chancellor Linda Katehi. After sitting through a mini-seminar on olive oil’s flavor, preference clusters and sensory properties, and expert versus consumer ratings, watching the olive milling process and learning about statistics on U.S. olive oil versus European olive oil, Yudof finally gave his thumbs up to a blend of 25 percent Frantoio olives and 75 percent Arbequina olives.

Yudof’s visit lasted only a day, a negligible amount of time in reality, a few short hours. But like so much of what is currently revolving around the UC system, his short visit suggests misplaced priorities.

On that September day, the memory of the previous 32 percent fee increase still sharply stung, and an 8 percent fee increase hung in the future. With bickering over the budget roiling the houses of legislature in Sacramento, and the state at a financial straits, Yudof’s decision to publicly devote his time to something as trivial as olive oil falls poorly on the ears of students who have been continually battered with tuition increase after tuition increase without even so much as one chance at respite.

UCD’s olive center was opened in 2008 by the university’s Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, and plays an important part in innovating California’s burgeoning olive industry. The olive center wasted no time in getting itself noticed when in the summer of 2010 it revealed that about 69 percent of imported and 10 percent of California extra virgin olive oil being sold in stores failed to meet international and USDA standards. The olive center’s study set a fire under some of the largest domestic and international brands of olive oil, especially since extra virgin olive oil is a premium product, sold for twice as much as regular oil.

Although Yudof’s involvement shows a positive investment in quality UC affairs, the timing of such a gesture seems misguided. At a moment when the $1 billion budget gap and ensuing $500 million budget cut threaten the very core values of the UC — affordability, accessibility and quality — it seems inappropriate and somewhat superfluous that the UC president is concerned with encouraging refined palates for olive oil in UC students. Right now students need UC leaders to reassure them that their future years in higher education will continue to hold fruitful resources and opportunities, despite inevitable cuts.

Students and parents want to hear that administrators are meticulously trimming any “fat” in the bureaucracy, and prioritizing providing students the best education and preparation possible. Certainly those decisions are difficult, but ideally Yudof’s public appearances at and interactions with school programs would reflect such priorities. Perhaps Yudof should press for a series of town hall meetings with students, whether in person or via video conference, rather than pressing olives.

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