UC President Mark Yudof Addresses Criticism

On Sept. 19, student media editors from nine UC campuses, including the Guardian’s News Editor Zev Hurwitz, participated in a phone interview with UC President Mark G. Yudof. The editors asked questions regarding topics from campus climate issues to tuition and budget cuts. Below is an edited transcript of President Yudof’s input.

UC Merced: On the state budget and tuition: as you probably know, since 1980, the percent of state budget spent on corrections facilities and prisons has increased significantly. Meanwhile, the portion of the budget allocated to higher education has dropped. Should we take a stance against this to prevent further tuition increases?

Yudof: Well, I have certainly taken that position. I’ve said many times to the governors and the legislators that it’s a total embarrassment that the expenditures on prisoners are a multiple of what they are on higher education. We now have half as much to spend per student than we did 10, 20 years ago, and the priorities are upside-down.

I don’t control the votes in the legislature, but I think you’re exactly right. I see Prop. 30 [a voter initiative to increase sales and income tax to fund public education] as, perhaps, at least an opening salvo to try and change that and try to get increasing appropriations for the university. As you know, we’re down virtually a billion dollars in the last four years, we’ll be down another $375 million if Prop. 30 doesn’t pass. We have a $22 billion-plus budget, and $2 billion, roughly, if it doesn’t pass, will come from the state of California. So this is a disgrace in my view, and a lack of commitment to the students.

UC Riverside: At last week’s Regents meeting, there were many long-term proposals to increase revenues or cut spending across the UC system. These included increasing enrollment of out-of-state students and making some majors or campuses more expensive than others. Which of these appeal most to you and why?

Yudof: I would say the differential tuition by campus or by discipline is probably near the very end of the list. It’s very unpopular with students, the regents, and the faculty. I don’t want to rule anything out forever, but I would say if there were 20 proposals, that would be twentieth on the list. I would say that what makes the most sense is restructuring our debt, which was blocked in the legislature last time.

It would enable us to pay less money to Wall Street by refinancing things and paying lower interest rates. For whatever reason, it was blocked. We could save a block of money there, up to $80 million per year, which would be an $80 million offset of any tuition increase that might be needed. Our first obligation is to Californians. But the truth is that we’re so under-funded, that when we enroll a non-resident and they pay full freight, that enables us to admit a Californian. And actually, our California enrollment has been going up, even as non-resident enrollment has gone up. I would guess those are probably the ones near the top. There are some things we can do with the IT systems that would make sense. Other things are pretty draconian. We can freeze faculty hiring, and even though we’re already 15 percent below market on faculty salaries, we could do some of that.

We could trim health and welfare benefits, but that would take some time and some consultation with the labor unions and with our non-represented employees. That’s pretty much the picture as I see it. We’re going to be working diligently, because even if Prop. 30 passes, we’re hundreds of millions of dollars short. The state gave us $90 million, and that covers our biggest cost-drivers, our pensions. We reformed our pension two years ago — before the state did — but it’s expensive to fix it, and health benefits are very costly for us, and then energy costs and a few other things.

UC Riverside: You’ve been a leading voice in the UC urging support for Prop. 30. If you were to meet a UC student on the street today, what would you say to the student about the significance of the upcoming election? How might possible outcomes of the election affect the student?

Yudof: I would say to the student that this is critical. This has more of a direct relationship to your pocketbook than virtually anything that I can imagine. It may be that if the speaker’s bill [The Middle Class Scholarship Act, a bill that would have provided scholarships for students whose household income falls between $70,000 and $150,000] had passed and we had gotten more scholarship money, that would have been a big help. But absent something like that, we need to have a steady stream of increasing appropriations. And we have worked out a plan. It’s not official, it’s not approved by everyone, but believe it or not, in about five years, we could be back at 2007-08 levels of state appropriations. That would take a lot of pressure off of tuition. And it’s just a little bit more on the sales tax and the income tax.

I used to do local and state taxes when I was a law professor, but this really is an opportunity to reverse this 20-year trend and have increasing appropriations to the university for a decade. And we have a big, big swing on this. We froze tuition, but no one paid for it, and that’s $125 million. And in addition to that, if it doesn’t pass, we’ll have another $250 million in cuts. We have a $400 million swing. And $400 million is one hell of a lot of student tuition money, just take my word for it, do the math. So I would say, if we get this done, we can maintain the quality, maintain the faculty. I don’t promise no tuition increases, but I’m hoping we could keep them in the single digits, rather than what you’ve seen over the last five to 10 years. That’s what I would tell them. And I hope you do tell your parents and your friends this election matters. And that’s what I do at every opportunity. When I’m out on the hustle, speaking, I do that. And as you know, we’re going to need each vote. And as you know, we got the Board of Regents to endorse it, with only one dissenting vote, so I’m very hopeful. But the polls are close, as you know.

UC Davis: A report was published in the Huffington Post this year about private schools like Harvard and Yale now being cheaper than many of California’s public schools.

Yudof: Not true. Categorically not true. We would be happy to provide the data. I don’t remember the article, but we’re charging $12,000 a year for residents, half of our students pay no tuition at all, we have 40 percent low-income kids. If you’re an out-of-state student, maybe that’s the comparison, it’s $30-some thousand in tuition, but it’s still less. I have a friend who’s a student at NYU, it’s like $62,000 a year.

What the article may have meant is that certain individual students may get more financial aid. They [NYU and other private schools] have much deeper pockets than we have. But most of those schools have only 10 to 15 percent low-income kids, and we have 40 percent. For some individual students, Stanford may offer a package, which Irvine or Davis or whatever simply cannot match, and maybe that’s what they meant, but there aren’t that many of those students. I hate to miss any of them, by the way — I’d like to keep them all. But realistically, they have a much larger endowment than we do.

UC Davis: In light of Prop. 30, what strategies does UC have to keep UC schools an economical option for both in-state and out-of-state students?

Yudof: You know, we have the most generous financial aid system in the United States. Thirty percent of our tuition gets turned back into financial aid. In addition to that, we have Pell Grants and we have Cal Grants. The result is, half of our students pay no tuition. That’s pretty affordable. I don’t say it’s free, I mean, you have to have a roof over your head, you have to eat, you have to buy books, you have to travel, you have issues. But in this world, that’s pretty good. Our average debt is under $20,000 a year. We’ve controlled it pretty well. That’s significantly below the national average, and I’m talking about only public universities, for privates, it can be much, much higher. So I think we’ve done a good job… So I’m not saying it’s easy. We live in a world of foreclosures and unemployment and I think dimming prospects for college graduates, I hope it gets better. Sso I’m not saying it’s easy, but we’ve worked awfully hard to keep it affordable.

UC Irvine: Regarding the upcoming UC campuswide campus climate survey, what can students expect in terms of being able to participate and just being aware of it, and also once the results are compiled, how accessible will the findings be, and in light of previous reports, what differences will we see in terms of dealing with campus climate issues?

Yudof: That’s a tough set of questions. I mean, we’re going to advertise it. We need to get at least 30-percent participation for it to be valid. And by the way, it’s students, faculty and staff. So, you know, to the best of our ability, we’re going to advertise and try to make people aware, because the higher the rate of return, the more accurate the survey is. You can help us in your newspapers, and student government can help, because this is not a random sample type thing. In the ideal world, everyone would respond, so we’d have a really good sample. If we don’t get 30 percent, my fear is it wouldn’t be accurate. The return, the information will be totally public. We will make it public, probably put it online or share it with you. I’m hoping it will lead to more intelligent policy. We’d like to know what you think. If you’re gay and on the staff, do you feel that you’re appreciated, or do you think there are impediments in your career? And frankly, it’s a lot of money, like a half million or $600,000 and at a time that is not great for us financially. But if we’re ever going to make progress on the campus climate issues, we need to know exactly what the problems are.

UC San Diego: There’s been a lot of buzz about the advisory council on campus climate reports both for the Jewish and Arab-Muslim student reports. How are you approaching the findings of the report, and when can we expect a decision regarding the Jewish report’s recommendation to ban “hate speech” on campuses, and what about all the other recommendations in both reports?

Yudof: There’s a lot of misinformation about that. These sets of recommendations are not coming to a vote in the campus climate committee. These are reports that I commissioned to advise me, and my staff and I will be wading through them and looking to see what makes sense. For example, the report on Muslim students had some recommendations about community places for prayer for Muslim students. I’ve already brought that to the attention of the chancellors, and we’re working to follow through. So we’re going to go through them, but there’s no up or down vote on it. Second, I wish I could create a hate-free campus. I’m a constitutional lawyer. I’ve taught First Amendment for 25, 30 years. We can’t do it. If by “hate-free,” you mean people cannot speak out about what they think about other people or events or whatever, then you’re simply banning pure speech. It is the case that we have protected Klu Klux Klan speech in Illinois, we have protected draft dodgers in the First World War, and their speech, which advised people not to report for the draft. We protect speech in this country, and that’s what our First Amendment is all about. So I’d like our campuses to be hate-free. I think I and the chancellors ought to speak out — we have a moral obligation, when people are anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or anti-gay or anti-African-American or whatever — but we cannot and should not try to prevent speech. The cure for bad speech is good speech. The climate on the campuses should be one of a thriving diversity of opinion, and amidst all the flowers there will be some weeds, but we can’t chop them without jeopardizing the entire enterprise.

UC San Diego: Recently there have been a couple of challenges to Proposition 209, the affirmative action ban, and the ban has been reaffirmed by recent court rulings. Will UC take any new steps to ensure that enrollment of minority students continues to increase? And does this remain a priority?

Yudof: We filed a very strong brief in the United States Supreme Court, in the Fisher case, saying that, in effect, we’re not satisfied with our progress in achieving diversity. We believe Proposition 209 is a great impediment, and more relevant to the U.S. Supreme Court, we believe that the state should be free to practice affirmative action without violating the fourteenth Amendment, and we can shoot that brief off to you. That was signed by myself and all 11 chancellors.

It’s very hard for us. I am deeply in favor of overturning Prop. 209, and at this point, given what’s happened to the courts, at least today, I don’t think a legal challenge is likely to succeed. Although it would be great if it did. What we have done is we have tried to redouble our efforts to recruit in the high schools, we’ve tried to give a lot of scholarship money to low-income kids, many of whom are Hispanic or African-American and so forth, and we have a holistic admissions system on the nine undergraduate campuses, so your life is not summed up into two numbers, your grade-point average and your SAT score. We’ve tried to do as best we can the things that would strengthen the possibilities for more underrepresented groups that need admission to the university. But frankly, 209 does tie our hands to a large extent. It’s just true.

UC Santa Cruz: The UC faces $300 million in funding gaps for this fiscal year, and if Prop. 30 doesn’t pass, an additional budget gap of $375 million in cuts will happen. You said in your opening remarks at last week’s Regents meeting that you would not discuss increasing tuition. If Prop. 30 does pass, is there any chance you could see plans for decreasing tuition in the long term?

Yudof: We were not going to discuss tuition at that board meeting, because I wanted to focus on alternatives, things we could do to either not raise tuition or to reduce the amount that would be raised. So I was trying to keep the board focused on these 10 or 20 proposals. I didn’t say it would not be raised. I think the chances are very high tuition will be raised. Even if Prop. 30 passes, we’re down $879 million in the last four years, and the amount of new money from the state is $90 million. The big ticket items are pension funds, compensation for faculty and health benefits, energy costs and a bunch of other things, and so my plan is to put together a total package for November. Really, it’s going to be two plans: one if Prop 30 passes, and one if it doesn’t. I wish I could tell you otherwise. I think the probability is quite high. Our budget is going down, if it does not pass, from $3.4 billion to it’ll probably be under $2 million within a four year period. Most prices will continue to go up. A third of tuition is put back into scholarships. It’s highly re-distributive, the way we do it. We will probably be discussing it in November, along with a bunch of other proposals to save money, to tamp down as much as we can any possible tuition increase.

UC Santa Cruz: Do you think students will continue seeking out the University of California if tuition continues to rise as it has?

Yudof: Obviously it depends on how much it rises, but applications are up 9 percent this year. You’re talking about some of the world’s best universities at $12,000 a year. And you compare that to other public universities around the country, most of them don’t have anywhere near our quality. Now, I mean, your point’s excellent. If the tuition goes up too much, people are price-sensitive, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that price point. In light of historic tuition increases, applications, and I’m talking about residents, non-residents are also up 10 percent, they’re up 9 percent. So you’re getting a very high quality education at a very good price, even if it hurts. Part of the problem is, it’s a dereliction of the “master plan” [a term used to refer to California’s system of high taxes and high public benefits] and the way it was supposed to be. And the state of California loves the Master Plan. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. And that’s sort of a problem. The quality is there, the access is there, and we’re maintaining affordability as best we can. We still have more Nobel laureates than most countries. And I hope we’ll be able to slow this rise in tuition down: it’s not healthy for us, it’s not healthy for you, either.

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