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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Q&A with Mark Yudof

On March 10, UC President Mark Yudof and other chief executives met with student journalists from The California Aggie and other campus newspapers to discuss the state of the university. And as Yudof said, it’s not pretty.

Yudof opened the discussion with some statistics – the university has 57 percent less money to spend per student from state funds than in 1990. If Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposals pass, there will be a $500 million cut to UC.

“It is a very unfair time for students,” he said. “Whether tuition goes up or whether services are cut or whether class availability becomes more difficult, there are a lot of things that are really working adversely for the students, and that is apart from the fact that the economy is not strong.”

California has a $25 billion deficit, which can be solved if there is a political will to solve it, Yudof said. University officials are watching the tax extensions closely, but have not officially supported it yet.

“There are certain things that, if done, could hurt the University of California,” he said. “I am expecting that we will probably support [tax extensions] because they add more state revenue – we need more revenue.”

Yudof also emphasized the need to watch financial aid measures closely, particularly the Cal Grants and Pell Grants.

“They are the lifeblood of the university,” he said. “Even if we haven’t been able to keep tuition down like we would like, at least we have pretty wholesome financial aid. If they are at risk then the students are really at risk.”

The Aggie has selected portions from the two-hour long interview, but the rest can be viewed on The Daily Californian’s YouTube channel.

Daily Bruin, UCLA: Can you elaborate a bit on your fears of what might be in the [tax extension] package?

Yudof: Well, it hasn’t been drafted yet. The first thing I’d like to see is higher education included in expenditures. If they’re going to have a cap, which might be part of the compromise, I’d like it to be a flexible cap, which excludes higher education … I would say those are my primary worries…

California Aggie: [The Legislative Analyst’s Office] recommended a 7 percent fee hike in the next academic year – what do you think about that?

Yudof: Well, my position right now is, we’ve hit you so hard [that] I’m not planning on recommending a fee hike beyond what is already on the books, which is 8 percent in September.

You know, if this tax extension doesn’t go through, instead of a $500 million reduction, we have a billion dollar reduction plus $200 million from pension, plus union contracts we need to honor, plus energy costs, plus retiree health benefits. I just have to tell you, if that occurs, all bets are off on everything – that’s enrollment, fees, financial aid, size of the faculty, student-faculty ratio. I mean this will really be a crux, and in my thinking, it will really be an extremely difficult situation, and so that’s where we are today.

I am not planning on recommending it, I think you’ve been hit very hard, you’ve tried to adjust financial aid, I think we’ve done a good job, but clearly it has an impact primarily on the middle class, and we just can’t dance around it. It just does. We’re still competitive with other universities, with places like Illinois and Michigan and so on – they charge more, we have higher living costs here, we have a very favorable student work loan, assignment for the families is smaller than most other states, but we’re going to have to do some fairly radical changes in order to survive this budget cut.

One thing I’m not going to compromise on is the quality of it. I’m just not going to turn this place into a place where we have a 40-to-1 student-faculty ratio, you can’t get out with your degree in under five or six years because of class availability. I mean, it’s no longer the University of California at that point where we’re losing faculty members; as it is, they’re getting offers from around the country. The privates haven’t suffered as much as the publics – I’m not going to compromise on the quality, and I mean, it’s going to be nasty if that scenario plays out.

California Aggie: You mentioned privatizing the university, which I guess gets thrown around a lot. At what point do we become private?

Yudof: …When the students are paying more money than the taxpayers, which is what it’s going to be if this goes through, and when your appropriations level is the appropriations level of more than a decade ago, that is an enormous step toward the privatization of the university, in the sense that the charges are moving toward a more market rate – if I can put it that way – they’re not nearly what prestigious privates are.

On the other hand, there are some unique characteristics of the University of California that Stanford doesn’t have and that MIT doesn’t have and Columbia and Chicago and all the rest, where 39 percent are Pell-eligible students – 39 percent. That’s triple any Ivy League institution around the country. So we really do make it a point of pride to be a source of access for socioeconomic mobility. Over half of our A-rate students come from a family where the first language in the home is not English. It may be Spanish, it may be Vietnamese, it may be Chinese, it may be lots of things. So one characteristic of the University of California is that we have made a concerted effort to go after the low-income students who have fewer choices than the more affluent students. And the other thing is, we’re a world-class research university…

That’s not privatization. We have to maintain that, but if you mean the students are paying more and more of a costly education, [then] that seems to be the road we’re on.

Daily Bruin: In a time when we’re seeing courses getting cut, majors getting tightened and tuition going up, we’re walking through campus and we’re seeing all sorts of construction all over the place and we’re seeing that with money that’s been donated to the university for those specific purposes. Students understand the money needs to go there, and they understand that that’s the only way it can be, but it still makes students uneasy to see that. They’re curious to know, what does the leadership have to say about that?

Yudof: You look at it not as good news or bad news, but probably somewhere in between, but we’re getting very little money from the state for capital projects. So what you’re seeing … and I understand student concern, is projects that were being planned for which bonds were issued and the proceeds of the bonds can’t be spent on anything else, but it might have been three or four years ago that that happened … So you’re seeing some of that play out.

The second thing is – I don’t do too much fundraising now, but I used to in the past – donors are not always putty in your hands… 90 some percent of all our gifts and endowments are restricted. So donors come to us – and by the way, sometimes that favors the students – they may come in and say, “I really want a scholarship program,” or “I want a graduate student stipend.” Other times they come in and say, “I’m really interested in nanotechnology. I want to have a chair in that,” and so forth. I think I agree that we are so desperate for operating funds where the donor is flexible.

We [have to] pump very hard for two things. One is to get as much of the money now rather than an endowment. You give a million dollars, it only pays back 50,000 a year, but it does it forever. The other is to try to get them to donate more to operating expenses. I have to tell you the truth though, that sometimes it’s a very tough sell because people come in and they have had careers and things that interest them along the way or they have statements they want to make with their money. They really do want a new computer science building and they’re just not going to move money over to the art museum. It’s just not in the cards… 

The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley: …If you take a critical look at how things have gone since you’ve come in, what were some of the things that you weren’t expecting and what do you want your legacy to be as you’re continuing through?

Yudof: I wish my legacy were that I started the new programs, that I had the moral equivalent of the health care legislation and social security and we added 30,000 students to the University of California. I would say that what I’m trying to do, and it’s not easy to communicate, is I’m trying to deal with each of these issues one at a time and reach the most rational long-run solution we can.

I’m very proud that we changed the eligibility standard. I think it’s going to be much fairer for all students. I’m very proud of the Blue and Gold program. I’m very proud that the Board of Regents endorsed holistic admissions a la Berkeley, UCLA. I think we had a very peaceful settlement of the pension plans – you didn’t see any strikes and you didn’t see the faculty up in arms and so forth. So we got that behind us.

Now what I’m wrestling with is to get us on a trajectory that will leave the great University of California as a great university with a foundation to be even better in the future. So I’d like that to be the legacy, that through the worst economic time for universities probably since the Great Depression that the University of California came through it with its quality intact, its terrific student body, its professors, and maybe this is just a foundation. Maybe we don’t grow like this for the next two, three or four years, but ultimately 10, 20, 30 years from now, people will look back and say the university was protected during that difficult time and now has the platform to make even more advances in the future. That’s the way I see it. I wake up in the morning thinking, “How do I defend and protect the University of California?”

The Daily Californian: And are you optimistic about that happening considering-

Yudof: I wouldn’t hold the job unless I did. They’re tough, these battles. But I do not like to lose. I used to litigate cases and I did not like to lose then either. The stakes are too high here. What a travesty.

Everybody knows this is the greatest university system, public university system, in the world. I get visitors from Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore and they all want to do what we’ve done. And we are going to pilfer this away in California? And with it, I think you diminish the economy and the tax bank. So I’m determined it does not happen on my watch…

I have to defend the legacy of a 120-some year-old university, and not let the – in a technical word – not let the politicians screw it up. And that’s what I do in the morning. And if I get it wrong sometimes, I get it wrong. I always say it’s not as lonely at the top as I was hoping. I have plenty of people who tell me what they think and what they ought to do, but that is my total mindset. I don’t expect to head any other universities or go back to law professoring. That is my sole aim, to defend this university. And I will do whatever I can to do that, although I think it’s going to be painful.

JANELLE BITKER can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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