YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

New UC chief is ready for action

Mark Yudof faces a budget crisis and tough legislators, but he's done that before and knows the ropes.

June 15, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Mark G. Yudof, the incoming president of the University of California, says he gets a kick out of his unlikely connection to "Predator," the 1987 movie pitting action heroes against an alien creature in the jungle.

Two of the film's muscled stars, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger, later became governors, of Minnesota and California, respectively. Yudof, a former president of the University of Minnesota, famously tussled with Ventura over education funding in that state.

And on Monday, the distinctly nonathletic attorney who has led the University of Texas for six years heads to Arnold-land at a time when Schwarzenegger is advocating a state budget that would lead to big spending cuts for UC.

"It could be part of my karma, my kismet," Yudof said of "Predator," commemorated by a comical photo in which a friend pasted Yudof's face onto a gun-toting body next to the buff actors. "If Carl Weathers" -- another "Predator" star -- "a few years from now is elected governor of California, then we are really on to something."

Kismet or coincidence, Yudof becomes the 19th leader of the 10-campus UC system in the midst of much-protested student fee increases and anticipated belt-tightening. Yudof, 63, faces a career-defining challenge at a public university system that even loyal Texas Longhorns concede is the nation's most prestigious.

Isn't the timing bad? Not necessarily, Yudof said in his book-lined office in a former 19th-century courthouse in downtown Austin.

"It is a difficult time for the state and certainly for the university, but that is not a reason to decline to get involved in it," he said. "I have a real appreciation for the sort of problems that they are facing. I'm going to work on it because these are potentially devastating cuts."

Yudof, a rare outsider in the UC presidency, said it was too early to discuss specific austerities beyond streamlining at the system's Oakland headquarters. Tougher reductions may come later, including salary freezes, he said.

But he said he hoped to avoid reducing basic classes because that would make it harder for students to graduate on time. "The first obligation is to continue to offer quality and accessible education," he said.

Whatever policies he pursues, fans and even critics in Texas say the deeply experienced Yudof will tackle the job with political savvy and a wry, self-mocking sense of humor.

His performance at UC will be scrutinized closely, not least because his compensation is among the nation's highest for public university leaders and double that of his predecessor, Robert C. Dynes. Yudof will receive an annual salary and benefits worth $828,000, along with free housing in the Oakland hills.

Asked about the issue, Yudof was terse. "No one likes to take a pay cut," he said, and noted that the pay package was set by UC's regents. His Texas package was worth $742,000 a year.

UT and UC are similar in scale and purpose, though the California university conducts significantly more high-level research. And unlike Texas, where the Austin campus is the clear flagship, UC has more competition among its campuses. It also has more powerful labor unions.

Last month's increase of $490, or 7.4%, in the annual base undergraduate fee was part of what Yudof called a regrettable national trend: shifting the costs of public higher education from taxpayers to students. He said he would work to limit fee hikes but could not promise that there would be no further increases.

The son of an electrician and a homemaker, Yudof was raised in Philadelphia. He commuted to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied political science and attended law school. As an attorney, he worked on a major case advocating increased school funding for poor children, handled contracts in the oil industry and became an expert on freedom of expression.

At UT Austin for 26 years, he rose from law professor to law dean to campus provost.

Starting in 1997, Yudof spent five years in Minnesota, winning more state funding for the university after squabbles with Ventura that the St. Paul Pioneer Press termed a "Rock-'em Sock-'em Winter Slam Pitting Two of the Most Popular Bald Guys in Minnesota." He encouraged campus beautification and pushed out two administrators over a men's basketball scandal.

Yudof also is remembered in Minnesota for his cook-offs featuring pancakes, a food he favors, along with Tex-Mex and Jewish deli.

"I'm an eater," Yudof, a stout man unafraid of wearing bright shirts with business suits, declared over beef fajitas at a home-style Austin restaurant. Although his doctors want him to slim down, Yudof said he is healthy and plans to be UC's president for at least five years.

A self-described type-A personality, Yudof said he relaxes by visiting his Florida vacation home and reading voraciously, from the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides to Donna Leon's mystery novels.

Los Angeles Times Articles