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Patt Morrison Asks

University of California President Mark Yudof: The BMOC

January 15, 2011|Patt Morrison

Mark Yudof became president of the University of California in 2008. Some timing. Since then, the university has seen its state funding, which accounts for about 13% of its operating budget, cut again and again.

Now Gov. Jerry Brown wants another $500 million out of UC's bottom line. That's a 20% drop in state dollars. With this cut, for the first time, students will shoulder more of UC's costs than California will.

Yudof is a realist and a self-deprecating fellow who jokes about his girth. (If there's the pancake version of a beer tummy, it's his.) Behind his desk is a Patrick Leger illustration of the pudgy president wearing a matador's suit of lights and, appropriately, facing a quartet of menacing bulls.

When Yudof was hired, UC Regent Richard Blum said, "He's expensive, but he's worth it." A UC education itself is not the bargain it once was, but Yudof believes the brightest star in public higher education's firmament can still be the saving of California -- if it can itself survive.

You've used the Ed Koch line, "How'm I doing?" After 2 ½ years, how're you doing?

I think we're doing well, and I don't mean to be Pollyanna-ish. We have a $20-billion shortfall, long run, in the pension plan. I think it's going to take 20 years to dig our way out, but we have a plan. We put the new [student] eligibility standard into effect; it's going to be a less mechanical admission [process], looking at the whole student record. We're putting in place a 10-campus payroll system. The faculty has been very loyal; we haven't lost an untoward number of people.

Has it made any difference that you are the first UC president in decades to come into the job with no UC experience?

It has, from the standpoint of perspective. Sometimes I'm just blown away by things that you could never get done elsewhere that have gone on here forever. Other times -- I won't tell you when -- I feel, why do you do it this way? It's like changing a tire with your back to the tire. They may not [choose another non-UC person] again for another 100 years, given my track record! But it does give me a different perspective.

What do you think about Gov. Brown's proposed cuts to UC's funding?

I don't blame Gov. Brown. I don't blame the Legislature. This is where we've been heading for a very long time, so it's sadness more than shock. In spite of all we've done to save money, raise fees, restructure our debt, this is going to cut into the muscle and sinew. A lot of people think there's a lot of fat. We don't have enough fat left to absorb a budget cut like this. We will set targets for reductions, and in March I'll present the whole thing to the Board of Regents. I'm not planning on asking for a fee increase, at least not at this time; I can't rule it out forever. We're probably looking at layoffs and program cuts and things like that.

Remember, it's not $500 million, it's really closer to a billion, because unlike community colleges and state colleges, the state doesn't give us money for employer contributions to the pension plan, so that raises the real cost [of the cuts] to $700 million; then you have union contracts, energy contracts, inflationary increases -- we really have a billion-dollar problem.

What's your relationship with Brown?

I like him. He has a bear of a problem. My job is to explain [to him] how complicated we are. We roughly have a $20-billion budget; $3 billion comes from the state. That's the English department, the Spanish department, economics -- that have difficulty generating the big outside grants. I love the humanities; I'm a creature of the humanities. But the engineering colleges are going to bring in more external research support, and that money's crucial.

Californians need to understand: The wine they drink, that was done at UC Davis. We have people working on artificial retinas, on stem cells to cure macular degeneration, on alternative energy. The people and the governor need to understand.

[Former Gov.] Schwarzenegger had a huge regard for higher education. He understood its role in economic development. Great research universities take a long time to build and can be destroyed in a very short period of time; he understood that.

The Master Plan for Higher Education is more than 50 years old. Is it time to reconfigure it?

I would be open to looking at some of the features. We're admitting the students as we are required, so that hasn't changed. The tiering is very good, where you have the University of California, Cal State, community colleges. The biggest problem with the Master Plan is the state doesn't want to pay for it. We have about half as much money per student, taking inflation into account, as we did in 1990, and that's driving everything else.

You changed the terminology for what students pay, from "fees" to "tuition."

When you're paying $12,000 a year, it's not like a beaker fee in a chemistry course. It's a lot of money, $12,000 -- let's call it what it is.

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