UC President: Serving Minorities 'Key Question' Going Forward

Ed. Note: In August, University of California President Mark Yudof will step down after a five-year tenure that coincided with one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory and a historic demographic shift that continues to play out across the social and political landscape, as well as in higher education. Yudof spoke with New America Media editor Peter Schurmann about how the University of California has met these challenges and its plans for the road ahead. 

New America Media: President Yudof, you took over as head of the UC system in 2008. What was the biggest challenge you faced at the time?

President Yudof: I think the major challenges hit almost immediately in 2008 or by the following year. I knew we were in an economic downturn but I didn’t know it was the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. I figured our budgets were in trouble but I wasn’t anticipating cuts over the next few years of $800 plus million. 

I would say admissions [policy] was another immediate challenge. My first few weeks in office, there was a faculty proposal to change the admissions system. I’m very avid for access, I’ve supported affirmative action and I’m very avid for diversity. But I also have a rule that I don’t sign anything that I don’t understand. It took me a while to understand the faculty’s proposal, and ultimately I endorsed it. It carried the Board of Regents and … led a few years later to a holistic admissions policy that said it’s not just numbers or your ranking in high school, but that you had to look at the whole student and if the person had overcome poverty or other challenging circumstances, or had particular talents. 

NAM: You mention affirmative action. What’s your take on reports that show college diversity has in fact increased in its absence?

Yudof: I’ve been for affirmative action for a very long time, probably since the mid-to-late 70s. It’s something I’ve had a passion for. I’m very proud of the fact that we have a high degree of socioeconomic diversity. Over 40 percent of our students are Pell grant eligible. A place like Berkeley or UCLA or Davis has more Pell-eligible students than the whole Ivy League combined. 

So I think we do a very good job of reaching out to low-income students. But it is not a substitute for one additional tool, which is affirmative action. If you actually look at the numbers, they’ve recovered some but African American enrollment is relatively flat - up just slightly from the time of Prop 209 [passed in 1997, prohibiting race-based admissions policies in California colleges and universities]. And while Hispanic enrollment is up, it really reflects the fact that Hispanics make up a greater share of the population of California. It’s not really a quantum leap in terms of our young Latinos and Latinas being able to gain access to the university. I think we could do a lot better if we had that additional tool. 

NAM: Putting aside the question of affirmative action, what is the biggest obstacle to reaching young people who don’t see UC as a viable option?

Yudof: There are many obstacles. One is that mom and dad sit down with their kids at the kitchen table and decide they can’t afford it. So we created the Blue and Gold Program. Today, if you make under $80,000 a year [then] you don’t pay any tuition. That simple. You have to apply for your Pell grant and Cal grant, but if you don’t get everything you need, we guarantee that you will pay no tuition. And in fact we contribute toward the living costs and all that. 

So one thing is you need financial aid. The second thing you need is clarity about financial aid. That’s very important. You can’t just say, “Trust me, come see us after you’re admitted.” A third thing is that high school graduation rates just aren’t what they should be. And college preparation just isn’t what it used to be. We can’t admit you and graduate you if you never got out of high school. 

NAM: Now that you are leaving, what do you see as being the major challenges facing your successor?

Yudof: Well, there are a lot of challenges [and] money is big part of it. I mean, we should be taking 30,000 more students, but the state isn’t paying for the students we have. So money is a big problem. Expanding enrollment would help, but there’s no money to expand enrollment. That’s a major, major challenge here. 

The second challenge is tuition. What we have is a highly differentiated system. And it’s highly redistributive. Roughly 30 percent of every dollar we take in from tuition we reinvest back in financial aid. So the nominal tuition is $12,000 but the real tuition is probably about $8500. It’s like the sticker price on an automobile: 62 percent of our students don’t pay the sticker price, [which is] income adjusted. But it’s still a problem, and particularly for the middle class because the higher your income, the less eligible you are for financial aid. 

Another big challenge is that the [state] financial model is broken. The state isn’t likely to come up with a whole lot more money. Over the years we’ve lost about $800 million. We’re back about $150 million but we’re nowhere near the funding levels we had in 2007. I mean we’re way far away. We probably won’t approach those levels for another five or six years.

NAM: To what extent are the financial challenges facing the university a bigger question about public values? 

Yudof: It does involve public values. And sometimes it’s public neglect. To some extent, the shifting values represent the shifting demographics. America as a whole is aging. People ask where their retirement income will come from, or how they will pay for their drug costs. It’s not to say they hate higher education, but there is a lot of competition for resources. 

I [also] think there’s a loss of the sense of a common purpose, or the common wealth in this country. We build more toll roads today than ever because state governments find it so difficult to come up with the money to build freeways. We have more gated communities. We have more private than public police officers. There aren’t enough judges, and there’s not enough money to support the legal system. I see higher education like that. Too often it’s treated as a private good rather than a public good that has an impact on all of us. 

NAM: The UC schools have long been the leader in higher education in California. How can they better serve the new majority of minority students in the state?

Yudof: That’s a key thing. We have higher graduation rates than just about any public university in the country. If you look at Nobel laureates, we have 60 of them, more than whole countries. We have very good graduation rates, including among minority students. So it’s a good place. 

But that is the key question for the next 25 years. How can we be sure that we are serving California? And to serve California, it means you have to serve Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, whites and other groups. I think it’s an open question and I think we’re not where we need to be. 

I think we need to be bigger than we are, with more students and more undergraduates. We also need to continue to be an open door for community college transfer students. Applications from community colleges are down because community colleges are being starved. They have 400,000 fewer students.

I think we need to do more on the e-learning side. I think we need an e-learning access to the university. We should have a curriculum online with specified for-credit courses that are open to potential transfer students. This would be an additional level that would allow for greater access.

NAM: How is the growing emphasis on technology impacting the curriculum? How useful, for example, are humanities?

Yudof: I’m worried about the humanities. Most of what I took in college was the humanities. If someone told me it was relevant, I didn’t take it. I took Greek thought and I took astronomy and I took philosophy and psychology. I was very good at abnormal psychology; it just came natural to me.

All these national efforts … that say if it doesn’t help in the physical sense or if it doesn’t put food on the table then it isn’t worth while, I don’t believe that for a moment. The corporations can do wonders teaching engineering or business principles, but I haven’t come across one yet that teaches Wallace Stevens or T.S. Elliot. I’m deeply worried that in this quest where the only education that matters is one that produces a very specific job outcome or product that humanities is going to get squeezed out. But students still pick the humanities and social sciences in very significant numbers. They’re carrying the banner.

NAM: The biggest issue for students who come to a UC school or any other university is employment. Where do you see the connection between higher education and jobs?

Yudof: I think we’re here to educate. I mean, we’re also here to help with the jobs but primarily to educate. And to me, the most important skills in a university setting are cognitive skills. Can you solve a problem? Can you synthesize ideas? Can you express yourself? I don’t believe you’re a good engineer if you just memorize the principles. You have to be able to apply them, and manipulate the concepts. My view of life is, no matter what you are - a neurosurgeon, or a postal employee - a person who can solve problems, and hold ideas in his or her head is extremely valuable. Our obligation, then, is to educate the students … [to ensure] that they learn to learn, that they’re creative, reflective. If we’re not doing that then we’re not educating.