“We have the greatest public university system in the world, and six universities from the UC system are considered the greatest research universities in the world,” said Mark Yudof, who was named the 19th president of the University of California in 2008. “It’s our job to preserve, protect, and defend UC.”
While the UC system has managed to recruit “world-class faculty,” has “done well in diversity issues, enrolling a huge percentage of middle-and lower-income students,” and has maintained a competitive edge in research and clinical care, Yudof recognizes the challenge of “making sure we don’t lose this great heritage of 125 years in changing times with the dollar not worth what it was.” As if it were not tough enough to lead a university system with 10 campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories, a statewide agriculture and natural resources program, 220,000 students, 180,000 faculty and staff, more than 1.6 million alumni, and an $18 billion annual operating budget, Yudof has to do that while maintaining top-notch faculty and enabling students to be able to afford to attend the universities in a state and a nation with severe budget problems.
Emphasizing the need to be “an opportunity factory,” Yudof has balanced tuition increases with greater opportunities for students to receive grants, while persuading faculty to take furlough days and increasing the research budget for things like solar panels, artificial retinas, and alternative fuels “that benefit California and the whole world.” He used the same approach in previous positions at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota, but in naming him one of the top ten university administrators last year, Time Magazine said that he had “stepped into one of the toughest jobs in higher education, running the massive UC system in a nearly bankrupt state that was considering cutting its higher-ed funding 10 percent.”
As if the financial scenario were not challenging enough, Yudof has to deal with a “political climate that is complicated,” particularly in view of his own background. A “strong supporter of Israel,” Yudof is active on the American Jewish Committee and is a co-recipient of the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award, along with his wife, Judy, who is the immediate past international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, and a member of the international board of Hillel. At the same time, Yudof is also a distinguished authority on constitutional law, freedom of expression, and education law who has written and edited numerous publications on free speech and gender discrimination, including “Educational Policy and the Law.” He earned an LL.B. degree (cum laude) in 1968 from the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he also earned a B.A. degree (cum laude with honors in political science) in 1965.
“People are not to be penalized for free speech, but it’s a difficult climate that can get highly personal,” Yudof said. “I’m offended when my own affiliations are attacked.”
Yudof “talks to Jewish students and Hillel directors a lot” and supports programs like UCI’s Olive Tree Initiative “110 percent,” because they promote dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students. While Jewish students think things “cross the line on the issue of policy disagreements,” Yudof asserts that “arguments in the outside world are exaggerated.” He added, “If someone attacks your legitimacy, you’re going to be offended.”
To Yudof the discourse is a positive occurrence. “We need more speech, not less,” he said. “I tell Jewish students to get involved on campus and put up your signs, but I can’t take down theirs. As Jews we have benefited from the First Amendment. I wish people were more careful, but the courts wouldn’t uphold the abridgement of free speech. We can’t morally or legally shut anyone down, even if it’s personally reprehensible.”
What Yudof does do is try to get other UC campuses to create programs like the Olive Tree Initiative, to get non-Jewish students to take classes in Jewish studies programs, and to encourage campuses where there have been problems to send students to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to gain a different perspective. “Still,” he said, “there is no Constitutional right to drown out another speaker, and UCI took the appropriate action” regarding the people who participated in the event where Michael Oren spoke.
“I’m proud of the Jewish community – Federations, Hillels, ADLs, and others who have gotten involved in these issues,” Yudof said. “Issues like divestment need to be resolved. Community leaders should go to regents’ meetings and hold our feet to the fire.”
Yudof believes that we “can’t escape the larger world and can’t view movements in isolation from the entire country, because the campus is subject to the same concerns. There is great angst and economic insecurity. Universities are not islands of isolation from the overall economy and culture, and people are angry.”
In his opinion, “Since the fall of the First Temple, anti-Semitism never goes away. Today there’s general angst about fee increases, job situations, and other economic issues, and discourse deteriorates rapidly. I’m a big believer in discourse, and my job is to assure civilized discourse.”
Yudof thinks that all people are “protective toward their children,” but “young people can think for themselves, speak up, and participate in student government. They’re not helpless. They’re very well grounded.”
He added that “issues of vilification are very much on the minds of chancellors, who try to stay in touch with the students and the overall Jewish community.” He encourages students to make connections and to meet with university officials.
“Students have to know the difference between speaking out and being offensive,” Yudof said. “We as administrators can say that something is horrible and set a moral tone even if we can’t enforce certain things. It’s our job to reassure students and make them feel better, and there are many positive things we can do on campus.”
Yudof concluded, “We have to protect all students on campus – whether Jewish, African-American, gay, or otherwise – and not let Jewish issues get swept under the rug. We can all do our best by being alert and speaking out. If we catch people violating other people’s Constitutional rights, the perpetrators will be sanctioned. Meanwhile, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, the answer to bad speech is good speech.”