Highlander Interview: UC President Mark Yudof

On March 2, Highlander Editor-in-Chief Chris LoCascio sat down with UC President Mark Yudof in Oakland to discuss his take on some of the biggest issues that face students and the UC today. The interview is the first in a series with influential UC and state leaders to be published in the Highlander over the coming months.

Chris LoCascio: Many students are unfamiliar with what goes on here in the Office of the President, and many confuse your role with that of the Board of Regents. How would you describe your role in the University of California?

Mark Yudof: That’s a good question, and I don’t know that any reporter has ever asked me that before. We’re sort of a federalist system. We have 10 campuses with chancellors and faculty, shared governance with students—they make a lot of decisions on campus and then there are the decisions I make and some that the board make. The board can make any decision it wants, so let’s start with that. Basically, we [UCOP] have things like the general counsel’s office. We have risk management, like when students were stranded in Egypt during the revolution, we sent a charter plane to get them out. We represent the university in Sacramento and in Washington DC. We have our communications group, to get things out, and I can go on and on down the list. So there are a series of functions that I perform.

I would say the most important are, and it’s always highly collaborative, but I set the admissions targets for undergraduates. I set the targets for transfer students, not just first-time freshmen. We’re trying to save money desperately. I think you know this, but we were cut a billion dollars the last couple years, three quarters of that were not borne by the students. We have things like new IT systems and we have our payroll systems and things like that. So there are some functions that I exercise some central authority over and we try to save money, you know we have UC Press and we have the digital library and so forth, and we have the telescopes and we have the institute. I would say there are some system-wide activities that I’m in charge of. We set some of the admissions parameters but the actual admission is done on campuses. Government relations, law stuff, risk management, which is insurance and what happens when if something goes wrong in a lab or if a student is injured somewhere. But the really big policy issues are for the Board of Regents.

Now I’m not going to deny that I can be highly influential, but I’m just one regent among 26. So I come in and I say, ‘look, this is what we ought to do on tuition, this is what we ought to do on our budget.’ There are these proposals for revenue enhancers, ‘this is my recommendation to the board.’ So I’m influential in that, but ultimately the really big decisions, hiring chancellors—I appoint the chancellors, I have search committees—but the board, if they don’t like my appointee, they can refuse to appoint the person because they can refuse to pay the salary. So the really big policy decisions are for the Board of Regents—budgets, big political decisions, but there’s some interplay in the joints, Chris. Like, I was very active in promoting the Dream Act. We didn’t have a formal vote of the Board of Regents but I talked to them and it was fine. I went out and put my [signature] on the bill that was introduced to the assembly and ultimately it passed.

CL: At the regents meeting in January, there was set to be a discussion on alternative revenue sources, and it was interrupted by protesters. The protests at UCR had been some of the biggest and most dramatic we’ve seen at UCR. You in particular have been the focal point of a lot of concerns from students. How do you feel about that? You’ve said in the past that student activism is a big part of the University of California, and I wanted to get your thoughts on that situation.

MY: Well I think student activism is fine. Shutting down the regents meeting is not fine. Injuring nine police officers is not fine. Blocking the entrances and the exits for two hours is not fine. I wrote a book on the First Amendment, I teach constitutional law, I’m on the Berkeley law faculty. So you won’t find anyone who’s more supportive than I on the rights of protest and peaceful demonstrations and all, but there was some real crossing of the line and I’m opposed to that, and we will deal with that like we would deal with any threat to public safety. So that’s point one.

Point two—it’s my job to educate the students. But you know, I always remember during the Vietnam War, and I was anti-war, people would picket the dean of liberal arts and ask him to stop the war. I’m not the students’ problem. I’m really not. My budget went down from $3.25 billion to $2.25 billion in just two years, three years. The state has cut virtually a third of the total appropriation. The students have not made up all the difference. You can protest me, but I only have so many choices. And what we have done, basically, is try to find efficiency, try to raise more money outside—we raised 1.6 billion dollars last year—and raising tuition is one of the things we do. We did furloughs. I furloughed myself. But there’s a certain lack of maturity in the understanding, when you point at the person who doesn’t have control over the legislature.

I think it’s great that the students are going to Sacramento. That’s where our problem lies. 20 years ago, the governor told me, we got way more money at the UC than the prisons. Now that’s not true. They are pouring money into the prisons and not into the young people of the state. So I understand I’m the authority figure that’s near, and it’s convenient to hang someone in effigy and all the rest of that, but it’s unfair and you don’t need my vote. You have my vote. I’m not in favor of raising tuition, I’m in favor of enhanced revenues for the state. I’m in favor of spending less money on prisons, but I don’t have the votes in the assembly and I don’t have the votes in the senate and I’m not the Governor of California, so the pressure should be where the political power is, in my opinion.

CL: In regards to the protest, you had mentioned that the protesters crossed the line. Where exactly is the line?

MY: Where is the line? One, throwing bottles at police officers. Nonviolence is one part. You can have lawful nonviolent protest. You can have unlawful nonviolent protest, and you can sit down and try to close the department of energy, sit in the lobby, it could be nonviolent, nonetheless unlawful and you can be removed. There is a distinction between speech activities and vehement, passionate advocacy of a position and closing down the meeting of a public body or taking on police officers and trying to take over a building, that’s the line.

Now, all conduct doesn’t deserve the same sort of response. We’re investigating the pepper spray incident and other things like it. I mean if it’s a peaceful protest, even though it’s unlawful and even though it prevents us from doing our business, then we ought to handle it in a very, very gentle way, trying to avoid, to the extent we can, any injuries to the protesters. You know there’s a lot of misinformation about the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not give you the right to shout down other people. It does not give you the right to close a meeting. It does not give you the right to resist police officers and lawful orders from police officers. Those are some of the lines.

CL: In the meeting, Chancellor Desmond-Hellmann proposed a new relationship between UCSF and the University of California. I know it’s in the very early stages, but what are your thoughts on that particular proposal?

MY: Well I’m going to look at it. We really are like a federalist system. We’re like a layer cake. There’s the English department in the college of liberal arts, and then there’s the Riverside campus, and then there’s the system. It’s distributed powers just like the federal government and the state government. So I have no objection to looking at that again. Remember UCSF has no undergraduates, and it’s all professional medical education and most of its revenues come from its hospitals and the clinics and so forth. They get, and this is roughly right Chris, they probably get six percent of their 3 billion dollars in income from the State of California. So they need to be nimble, and they need to be able to respond to the president’s healthcare initiative and all that, so I’m perfectly willing to look at that and be more flexible. But this is a great university system and I don’t think this is what the chancellor wants, but we’re not talking about a declaration of independence here, 1776-style. We’re talking about flexibility, and I can appreciate that. Sometimes I think, why am I so much in the compensation business, and to some extent why am I so much in the tuition business, and all the others?

There are many other models around the country. At Texas, when I was there, I really wasn’t in the compensation business. I mean, there was accountability, but it was at the campus level. Tuition varies by system. Some have it have it centrally set in the system office by the Board of Regents in our case, and some of them there’s leeway for each campus. So there’s no one model, but I’m willing to look at it. But I haven’t really reached any specific conclusions.

I do know that, in my judgment, a hundred years from now UC San Francisco will still be part of the University of California, that we have a public mission, and that taxpayers, maybe not this year, but many years provided the money and the buildings and the young people and I’m not willing to overnight undo the work of 150 years.

CL: One of the biggest concerns students have raised in recent years with tuition increases has been the rise in executive compensation. How would you explain that?

MY: It’s not true. It’s flat out not true. This is a very good example. Give me that data. Show me the data. The only people who consistently get raises are the unionized workers. They get three to four percent a year. How many chancellors do you think have gotten raises in the four years I’ve been here? Zero. How many raises do you think I’ve gotten? Zero. How many raises do you think my vice presidents here have gotten? Zero. So what happens is, we’re a system of 180,000 employees. We have Stanford who wants to lure our hospital head from UCLA, and we make a counter-offer which is half of what Stanford is offering, we think. The unions get upset, the students say ‘there they go again.’ We meet that counter-offer.

Last regents meeting when people got upset, there were nine people out of 180,000. By the way it’s self-inflicted. When we do the across the board three percent, no one over $200,000 got one of those raises. It’s flat-out untrue, and I’m having a terrible time with the truth catching up to the lie. It doesn’t mean we never do it, but it always means that we have a sensitive position, often by the way not on state funds, often on hospital revenues or research funds or something like that. Not true. And I defy anyone, any of your friends, to come up with the data that shows there is a pattern. They can pick out one or two or five, and I’ll try to explain—the person was promoted, the person was being lured away by another institution, we needed someone to get us through the building of a new hospital or something—but you can count them on your fingers. The people under $200,000 this year got raises, across the board, almost, except that they were not meritorious, but over $200,000 got none.

CL: So, to put it simply, the main two reasons are unions and competition.

MY: I would say that they were negotiated agreements. No that’s not totally true. People under $200,000 for the first time in four years got a three percent raise. But the idea that highly compensated executives got raises is just untrue. I mean there’s one, there are a couple of hospital directors, but as a pattern it’s not true. And again, take a look, we’ll supply you with the data. Which chancellor? Which vice president? Did I get a raise? In every case, people go crazy, and they see that six people got a raise and say ‘there they go again’ and ‘how can they do that?’ I understand the psychology of it, but as a pattern it’s simply not true.

CL: UC applications are at an all-time high, and campuses are having to get more and more selective. Have there been any efforts to change the admissions process at all, even perhaps a holistic admissions process?

MY: We did it. We did it two years ago. Berkeley and UCLA mostly had holistic admissions and then, we can debate this, the others had gradations of that, and some a little and some a lot. But as of this year, for the first time, all nine academic institutions, with a little nuance which we can explain at Santa Barbara, have adopted holistic admissions. They’ve all gone over to holistic admissions.

By the way, there’s a story in that. Our average tuition is $11,300, our sticker price. We set aside a third of it for financial aid. So the real price is closer to $8,000, because we don’t keep the $11,300, we keep roughly $8,000. Then we have Pell Grants, then we have Cal Grants. The actual average tuition at the University of California is $4,400 a year. Some people pay it all, some people pay zero, some pay half.

This is not a good analogy, but if you think of it like a car or something, you go into the dealership, here’s the sticker price, then you say ‘wait a minute, I don’t want to pay the sticker price, what do actual people pay?’ And the only difference in our case is that it’s all income adjusted. It’s based on need. But the average tuition actually paid is $4,400. By the way, the Obama people know this, when we have been talking about some of your ideas and some of ours, they know that there’s a difference between whether you set aside 10 percent for financial aid or 33 percent. We’re highly redistributive, but not all public universities are.

CL: That brings me to my next question. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made higher education a significant priority, even going as far to suggest that the federal government would cut funding to schools who don’t lower tuition. Is that a realistic statement to make?

MY: I don’t think that’s quite what he said, but I don’t mean to be too picky here, but he didn’t say unless they lower it. He was worried about the rate of growth in tuition. We’ll see when we see the final package, and there is a difference between them.

In general my attitude was pretty positive toward what the president said. Chris Edley (Dean of Berkeley Law) and I have been to Washington, pitching something similar but not identical to what you’ve proposed. We’ve been filling them in that you can’t compare us to Nevada or Arizona, you can’t just look at gross tuition, you have to look at what’s set aside for financial aid, and you have to look at some other factors.

But in any event, I would say two things. First, the president really does understand, believe me. He’s a very smart man with very smart people around him. The primary driver of higher tuition is disinvestment by the states. Everybody knows that. The amount that tuition goes up is directly proportional to the disinvestment by the state.

I can give you a concrete way of thinking about it. You need some prescription drug, and you have a $20 co-pay. In one week, the co-pay goes from $20 to $40, so you have had your cost doubled. That’s a true, accurate number. That does not mean the price of the drug has gone up. It may mean that the drug company has decided it wants to make a smaller contribution, and wants you to pay for more of it. That is what’s happened across America, including California. Our actual cost is about 15 percent lower than it was 20 years ago. On an inflation adjusted basis, we spend less to produce a credit hour or degree than we did 20 years ago. Our price is going down. What’s happened is the co-payer doesn’t want to make the co-payment. So the cost to the students has gone up geometrically, far greater than the rate of inflation. And I think the president understands that, but Chris [Edley] and I will probably go back to Washington and try to work with him.

By the way, I also like his accountability stuff. I think completion rates are very important. The number of poor kids who enroll is very important. I really sense that, at least with the University of California, we have a great friend in Washington who will be able to work through these issues. Now whether all this stuff will pass, I have no idea. It’s an election year, and who knows?

CL: In your opinion, why has the state continued to disinvest in the University of California? Can you diagnose the problem?

MY: I did. I wrote an article a while ago. Some of it I think is demographic, which might strike you as strange. The percentage of families, and I’m talking America, not just California, the percentage of families with children has declined markedly since the 1950s and the baby boom generation. So you see things emerging that are more the priorities of an aging population. You see more emphasis on pharmaceuticals for the elderly, you see a great prison expansion, ‘lock up the bad guys,’ social security in a lock box—you see what you would expect in an aging population. That is reinforced by the fact that in most elections, the majority of all the voters do not have children in school, either K-12 or college.

That was not true of 2008. Obama brought out voters. It’s really rare, but it was one of the few times in recent years where the voters who had children came out. I think it’s not that they dislike us, but it’s the demographics and as the baby boomers go through, this bulge goes through the population, and they have so many of the votes, there is just a tendency to want to serve them. So I think even at the federal level we spend something like 10 times as much on the elderly, maybe it’s seven or something, as we do on young people.

I think the other thing is there has been a partial privatization, they don’t want to admit it, but the premium for having a college degree has grown since the late 1970s and the information revolution. And by premium I mean the wage differential. When I was growing up you could get a job at an automobile factory, get a pretty good job, well-paying job, union job, with health benefits and a retirement plan. Those manufacturing jobs are leaving, so there’s a premium on higher education. The unemployment rate for people with a college degree is half what it is for the rest of the population. That has fed, I think, the idea that it benefits, in your case Chris, you, more than it benefits California. I think that’s a misbegotten policy. I think that’s the second part.

The other thing is the way Washington has set it up. We don’t have a coherent national higher education policy. We never really have. We want access, Pell Grants, GI Bill. Don’t give pizza to loan officers, because they may make improvident decisions. Report certain sorts of criminal activity, and research grants and we’re out of here. That’s the national policy. But we have had more national policies on healthcare and so forth. There aren’t matching programs, by and large. The president’s made some movement in this direction, but if you’re the legislature, you give up dollars by not funding medical care. In higher education, you’re not giving up dollars that they see. In reality, they’re giving up a lot of dollars, but it’s not Washington dollars today. What they’re giving up is economic growth and employment.

CL: What would you see as the solution to this issue? There are a number of tax initiatives slated for November, including Speaker Perez’s Middle-Class Scholarship Plan, the Millionaires Tax, Governor Brown’s budget…

MY: Let me say a couple things to be clear. I really do support the speaker’s plan. I think it’s wonderful for our students. It doesn’t help us on the educational side, or you. There’s some problems, but if it passes and it works, it should make it more accessible for the middle-class. That’s positive. That’s good news—I’m for it. It doesn’t put a dollar toward a single professor. You cut us $750 million dollars in a year, it doesn’t return one dollar to hire a professor, or to provide student services, or to mow the grass, or to heat the buildings, or instructors or TAs. So I’m for that.

When it comes to revenue enhancers, I hadn’t totally made up my mind, but each of them has pluses and minuses. The Millionaires Tax is very attractive to me because it actually has a sum of money that, on the face of it, would be directed toward higher education. I have no philosophical objection. That’s another problem. People somehow get confused, like it’s Mark Yudof and Sherry Lansing standing between them and revenue enhancement. Not true. You could talk to her, I think she’d have the same view.

The governor’s proposal, I think, is very clever and balanced. I sort of like that. I have more trouble with the Munger proposal. But at the end of the day I’m really willing to be supportive of revenue enhancements, why wouldn’t I be? The University of California, our students, faculty, staff would hopefully benefit.

But there are wrinkles to all this stuff. I would prefer to have a deal, an agreement with the legislature and the governor about what’s going to happen to the university over the next three or four years. If that were tied to the governor’s revenue enhancing proposal, I would certainly take a very serious look at that.

The problem with the Millionaires Tax is there’s no what we’d call ‘maintenance of effort’ provision. So they could give us the money from the Millionaires Tax, but then they could pull money out elsewhere. In other words, there’s nothing in it that says you can’t go below last year, or you have to be a certain amount above it, so we’re worried about that. In other words, the power would ultimately be in the hands of the legislature. The game would not be over the day it passes. We’re also concerned about if there’s more than one revenue measure, will they kill off each other? I hear that in the capitol all the time. They say, ‘Mark,’ when I speak to legislative leaders, ‘let’s get behind the governor’s proposal.’ There will be two or three proposals, and they’re more experienced than I—they think it could drag down the whole thing if the voters are divided among the proposals. Chris, I don’t honestly know, I’m just telling you what I think and what I hear.

CL: What do you think is the value of a UC education?

MY: If you want to know what I think—my feeling is, a university education, this will sound trite but I’ll try to make it better, should be preparing you for life. We’re not going to teach you all the anthropology that you could possibly know, or all the history, or all the Spanish, or all the civil engineering. What we can do is provide you with the cognitive skills and the way of problem solving and the ability to synthesize ideas, whether you turn out to be the vice president of a philanthropy [group], or you turn out to be a neurosurgeon, or a teller at a bank, or a police officer. Those skills will enable you to be a thinking, cognizant human being that can work their way in the world. That’s one.

Another is I really deeply value the challenge of diverse ideas, the fact that we have African-Americans, and Hispanics, and Asian-Americans and so forth prepares you for a world in which not everyone thinks like you, not everyone looks like you, not everyone lives in your city. I think that’s what a great university can do. It can expose you to other ideas, other cultures, and prepare you to be more of a global citizen. Those are two.

And third, I do expect you to know something when you graduate. I don’t want a doctor who never took anatomy. I’m not that far out in my cognitive skills. I hope we teach you something that enables you to get on with your life. But I’m a liberal arts guy, so I think I was well-served. I read Wallace Stevens and Pindar’s Odes and all that, and I never felt left behind. I don’t read too many journalists. So I don’t have have a mechanical view of this. I think people get too tied up with, ‘we don’t teach you how to turn a bolt,’ or ‘we don’t give you a specific type of business course.’ That we failed.

Our students are smart. They’ll figure all that out. What we need to do is give them the cognitive skills to be all they can be. That’s my goal for the university. And I think we do it very well. I mean look at our graduation rates. Look at a place like Riverside with an astounding degree of diversity. The graduation rates could be higher but they’re still darn high, compared to national standards.

CL: I have one last question. UCR has a long-term development plan called UCR 2020. Do you have any long-term plans for the UC? Any particular goals in mind for the next five, ten or twenty years?

MY: Well it’s very hard, because I feel like we’re under siege. You know, my primary goal is that we come through this crisis still being the best public university in the world, building on our $5 billion a year of research, our medical facilities. Every year there are more students applying. Apparently we haven’t priced out of the market, when your apps are going up ten percent, and when your student body is forty percent low-income.

So I have to be honest. I wish it were different. I do believe in the multi-campus approach, so we’re putting money into multi-campus research; we’re participants in telescope projects. We do a lot of things that say the power of 10 is better than the power of one.

I would say there are some things I’ve wanted to fix. I do think we should reexamine our governance model. We did fix the pension fund—we haven’t talked about that, but we’re just about the only large public employer in the state to have fixed it. But our faculty and students are so good that the actual intellectual directions, I fully trust them to figure out. My problem is to protect them and facilitate what they do.

CL: Thank you very much for the interview.

MY: Thank you, sir. You asked good questions!

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