A Telling Look At President Yudof and His 'Ethereal' Life

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Correction Appended

Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, is a very important person in the statewide university system. Two weeks ago, he sat down for an interview with the editors and writers of student publications at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced. The lengthy discussion highlighted President Yudof's positions and priorities on a number of issues.

First, Yudof makes it clear that he feels he is not to blame for most of the university's current problems. As he puts it (after nearly a year and a half in office), he hasn't "been here long enough to do all the harm" that critics accuse him of doing. To him, the main culprit is the state government, and the cuts and fee increases he has instituted are nothing but unavoidable responses to state funding reductions. However, many in the university community believe that the budget cuts should have been explored in a more cooperative fashion, and should not have fallen so heavily on staff, faculty and students.

It is also clear that research is the university activity that President Yudof values the most. At one point, he beams, "All around the world, people say ... the model is the University of California, we want a great research university…" He expounds at length about several current research projects.

In fact, the word "research" appears some twenty times throughout the interview, permeating Yudof's answers to many different questions. No other university endeavor is mentioned more than a few times. Summing up, Yudof enthuses, "We do fabulous research here, I mean, it's unbelievable."

Surprisingly, while President Yudof strongly supports the university's expanding research activities, he decries the increasing "privatization" of the university. Most analysts would assert that the two go hand-in-hand. A great deal of the private and corporate money that is dedicated to university research is tied to the expectation of future commercial profits.

Indeed, the fruits of biotech, genetic and energy research promise millions to investors in the form of exclusive patent rights. This mad rush for proprietary and marketable discoveries has led to a disturbing value shift towards profit-making above all else and secrecy-for-advantage that permeates the science and technical fields-and ultimately affects the entire academic environment. Just look at the number of top UC administrative positions that are now filled by experts in finance and investment, rather than education.

(For a vibrant and perceptive analysis of this national trend, I recommend reading University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, by Jennifer Washburn, 2005.)

During a good portion of the interview, the discussion revolves around recent budget cuts and student fee hikes. Unfortunately, Yudof skirts some important budget questions, and sometimes implies that budget matters are too complex for students to understand-even though the level of depth and specificity of the student editors' questions demonstrates an impressive grasp of key issues.

At one point, Yudof even compliments a student for a particularly incisive question about fee distributions that he clearly has not anticipated. "You've been doing your homework. That's a good question," he says. Ultimately, Yudof promises to explore the issue further.

But the most revealing point in the interview comes when President Yudof is asked where he was on the day of the unprecedented and widely-publicized university systemswide strike and protest action, Sept. 24. His answer: "I actually think, I may have been out of town. Remember, I don't live on a campus. I live an ethereal life: no students, no faculty, no classrooms, no residence halls … I may have been out of town, I'm not sure."

President Yudof's statement is consistent with the public relations approach that recommends trying to disempower your opponents by pretending that you do not notice them at all; you regard their concerns as insignificant. But what is striking is that Yudof executes this technique so poorly.

First, his statement sounds a bit disingenuous, sort of like a teenager trying to account for an unexplained dent in a parent's car. (That big dent? Oh, it may have happened in the parking lot when I wasn't anywhere near the car, I'm not sure.) Second, it is a remarkably shortsighted strategy for a university president to suggest that he is completely out of touch with students, faculty and classrooms. Finally, his use of the word "ethereal" here is so interesting that one is compelled to ponder the possibilities.

The word actually means "light, airy or tenuous; extremely delicate or refined; heavenly or celestial." My favorite is the last one-and if true, it may actually account for Yudof's uncertainty as to his whereabouts not just on the day of the walkout but on any given day.

Here is one question that should have been asked: President Yudof, what is your annual salary? (I invite readers to Google this for a hands-on learning experience.) I will mention one thing about the figure, though: President Yudof makes a lot more than that other President we have-you know, like Barack Obama, the president of our entire country.

Which itself raises an important issue. We are told again and again that the University of California must continue to raise its top administrators' salaries to sky-high levels because of the need to compete for the best talent. I think it is quite possible that the real reason they keep raising the top salaries is so they can all continue to justify their own exorbitant compensation figures. Perhaps it's time to ask whether we might actually get better, more education-centered leadership if we started paying less to the people at the top.


Correction: Tuesday, November 3, 2009
An earlier version of this story misspelled Doug Buckwald's name.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Doug Buckwald is a UC Berkeley alumnus. Reply to [email protected]

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