As Yudof Steps Down, Major Challenges Lie Ahead for the U. of California System

ZUMA Press, Newscom

Mark G. Yudof, president of the U. of California system, is stepping down in August.
January 20, 2013

Mark G. Yudof, who announced on Friday that he would step down as president of the University of California in August, had the good fortune to lead one of the world's great universities and the awful luck to have his five-year tenure coincide with one of the most challenging financial periods in the system's history.

Mr. Yudof, who is 68, said his decision to leave had been driven by personal reasons, including "a spate of taxing health issues" over the past 18 months, and his sense that this was "an apt time for the university to bring in fresh leadership," according to a written statement. He was declining all requests for interviews, his office said on Friday.

The record of Mr. Yudof's presidency is mixed.

Praised by faculty members and political observers for his willingness to embrace controversial policies like pension reforms and tuition increases to blunt the most devastating effects of state budget cuts, Mr. Yudof has also been faulted for leadership that some found too conventional for the times, and for a public communications style that was too often tin-eared.

A veteran higher-education leader who came to California after heading up university systems in Minnesota and Texas, Mr. Yudof took office in June 2008. Months later the financial crisis hit, kicking off an era marked at UC by mandatory furloughs for faculty and staff members, repeated tuition increases, and successive cuts in public funds.

The cuts would ultimately leave the university system with about $1-billion less per year from the state than it received in the year before Mr. Yudof became president.

While the state economy is now beginning to recover, and a tax increase approved by voters in November staved off additional cuts this year, Mr. Yudof's successor will have no shortage of challenges, including what will very likely be a major rethinking of the breadth and scope of the 10-campus system itself.

Rethinking the System

"A next leader of the UC system should help the governor and the Legislature figure out what should the system look like," said Robert Shireman, director of California Competes, an organization focused on education reform.

That includes questions like how many undergraduates it should serve; how involved it will become in distance education, which Gov. Jerry Brown has championed; and whether the state can really afford to maintain nine full-scale research institutions. (The 10th campus, in San Francisco, is dedicated exclusively to the health sciences.)

Under the California Master Plan, the state's blueprint for higher education, the University of California must accept the top 12.5 percent of all high-school graduates, but studies by the Public Policy Institute of California show that increasing shares of California high-school students are now surpassing the eligibility criteria that UC established to meet that goal.

As a state and as a country, "we should be saying, That's great," said Hans Johnson, co-director of research at the institute. But those high-achieving students can't get into UC because most of its campuses don't have room.

"The 50-year-old Master Plan doesn't reflect the educational needs of the current economy," said Mr. Johnson. (The university, which admitted about 80,000 freshmen last fall, reported on Friday that it had received nearly 140,000 applications for freshman admission in the coming year, a record number.)

As their budgets have been pummeled over the past few years, the campuses have also been seeking out more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition. Tuition has roughly doubled over the past five years, to about $13,000 annually for California residents. Out-of-state students now pay about $36,000.

Crisis After Crisis

During his tenure, Mr. Yudof "faced budget crisis after budget crisis," said Mr. Johnson. But now that some of that pressure is easing, he said, one priority for the next president must be, "How can you make the university able to respond to the real increase in demand for spaces?"

The policy institute has proposed that UC accept the top 15 percent of high-school graduates. To accommodate that growth, Mr. Johnson said the system might have to eliminate some duplicative graduate programs and raise tuition, if need be, as long as it also provides more student aid to needy students.

One of Mr. Yudof's signature efforts is the Blue and Gold financial-aid program, which provides generous grants to students in families below California's median family income of $60,000 a year.

Mr. Shireman said Mr. Yudof had also been developing a new college-tuition proposal, along the lines of the federal income-based repayment plans for student loans—an idea that Mr. Shireman called "IBR on steroids" and that he said shows promise for making college more affordable.

William Hauck, a former president of the California Business Roundtable and now an adviser to a political consulting firm, said the next UC president must also be "a vigorous leader, someone who is willing to work with the other segments of higher education" on some collaborative ventures.

"The way we've been doing things is not going to be sustainable," said Mr. Hauck, who is also a trustee of the California State University system and led its recent search for a new system chancellor.

The economic gloom that complicated that search—and the recently completed search for a new head of the state's giant community-college system—won't be as much of a factor in the search for Mr. Yudof's successor, although as Mr. Hauck noted on Friday, "people are not dancing in the streets" over the state's financial future either.

Yet as search consultants note, the pool of applicants with the academic, managerial, and political chops to oversee an enterprise as complex and respected as the University of California may not be all that large, even though the job is likely to pay pretty well. The system has 234,000 students, about 208,000 faculty and staff members, more than 1.6 million alumni, and an annual operating budget of $22.7-billion. Mr. Yudof makes nearly $600,000 a year.

"It would not surprise us if California chose a political or business figure, given the current political and economic climate," said Lucy Apthorp Leske, vice president and co-director of the education and nonprofit practice at Witt/Kieffer, a search firm.

That kind of choice might signal a shift in direction for the university system, one that some higher-education policy analysts say may be overdue. Mr. Yudof deserves "high marks for stability," said Patrick Callan, one such analyst with deep California ties, but not for "innovation or charting new directions."

The tuition and salary-freeze strategies that Mr. Yudof used in response to the budget crises were all "kind of appropriate if you think there is going to be restoration of the status quo ante," said Mr. Callan. He thinks the system needs a bigger jolt. "The university really has to rethink itself," he said, particularly in differentiating its campuses and in "what the digital age means for how we do teaching and learning."

Mr. Callan said that Mr. Yudof had the opportunity to shake things up with a 2010 Commission on the Future but that most of what it recommended, including calls for three-year degrees and increasing transfer students, were "tepid."

Under Mr. Yudof, the university did attempt a major foray into distance education in 2010, but student interest in UC Online has been underwhelming at best, and many faculty members have questioned the merits of the pricey venture.

Faculty Relations

At the same time, many faculty members say they've appreciated Mr. Yudof for his consultative approach.

"I have always felt that he was working in partnership with the Academic Senate, as if we were in an academic seminar—carefully thinking through issues together, as opposed to listening only so that he could most effectively craft a dismissive response," said James Chalfant in an e-mail message. Mr. Chalfant is a professor of agricultural and resource economics on the Davis campus, who has worked with Mr. Yudof on several universitywide committees.

Yet some faculty members never forgave his joke in a 2009 New York Times interview that running UC was "like being manager of a cemetery; there are many people under you, but no one is listening," even though he ended that sentence declaring, "I listen to them."

More recently, the system and Mr. Yudof drew ridicule for a proposed new logo. It was meant to convey a modern image for the university and its Onward California marketing and fund-raising campaign. But use of the logo was quickly suspended amid an outcry of protests from students and others who said it looked like a toilet.