You have to say this about Mark Yudof's retirement from the presidency of the University of California: His timing now is a lot better than it was for his arrival some five years ago.
He knew he was hired in part to clean up the mess left by his predecessor: There was the bloated central office administration. There were the cozy under-the-table deals giving UC administrators benefits and perks to compete with the higher salaries elsewhere UC couldn't pay: generous housing and retirement allowances, cushy vacation pay, even a dog run for a campus chancellor.
But he didn't know what a horrendous mess the state's finances were sinking into nor, probably, did anyone else. If Dick Blum, the big macher UC regent who pushed Yudof's appointment through the board, did know and didn't tell Yudof, he has a lot to apologize for.
When Yudof was hired, Blum, who'd been dealing with the administrative mess as chairman of the board, sounded like the relieved father in an Italian opera who'd just married off his ugly daughter.
The administrative swamp has been drained. But Yudof has never escaped the effects of the fiscal mess including a cut of some $900 million in state funding since he came. And they don't erect monuments to people who just preserve the status quo.
In fact, Yudof has done a lot better than that, although he may never get nearly as much credit for that as he got heat and abuse for his effort to cope. The headlines have gone to the tuition increases, the salary freezes and the enrollment caps. They've gone to the sit-ins at regents meetings and the campus protests at Davis, Berkeley and UCLA. They've gone to the campus cops who may, or may not, have overreacted to the demonstrators.
But little attention has gone to the fact that students from low- and even middle-income families can go to UC without paying tuition, and that under Yudof the pool of those eligible for free tuition has been enlarged. Yudof has raised $670 million toward a goal of $1 billion to make the university still more accessible to students from middle-class families.
All told, the UC is in far better shape now than when he came. But it's unlikely that it can ever again exercise the kind of influence, both in this country and abroad, that it did in its glory days under Clark Kerr in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was an era when new UC campuses and new programs were created one after another, when students paid low "fees" and not tuition, and when California adopted a master plan that promised every Californian who could benefit from it a place somewhere in its three-tiered higher education system. UC was that rarest of rare institution, a tax-supported world-class research university that was elitist and democratic at the same time.
Ever since he came, Yudof promised to resist privatization, but privatization has come in any number of ways: in spiking tuition; in recruiting and admissions policies increasing the percentage of foreign and out-of-state students and the high tuition they pay; in the pursuit of industry contracts.
UC is still the nation's premier public university. But in its attempt to keep pace with Harvard and Stanford, it's becoming more like Michigan and the University of Virginia, nominally public universities that started down the road to privatization even before UC did.
Yudof had been thinking about retirement well before he made his announcement last week. But it's hard to imagine that Gov. Jerry Brown's muscle flexing at recent meetings of the regents even his pointed reminder that he is the legally designated board president did anything to encourage Yudof to stay.
Nor did Brown's statement that he wanted the university to focus more on teaching and less on research, offer more online courses and, in general, tighten its fiscal belt.
That streak of de-elitification wasn't all that different from the Jerry Brown of yore who famously said university people should be satisfied with lower pay since they got plenty of "psychic income." In his last turn in the governor's office, Brown also let it be known that he thought UC was doing more to serve its faculty and administrators than it served its students. None of that can cheer a UC president.
Brown may in fact be right in asking for more emphasis on teaching. UC has long been trying to model each new campus Irvine, Davis, Santa Cruz, Merced on Berkeley and UCLA: full-service research institutions. Santa Cruz was supposed to be different, but it soon took on the same shape.
As the first outsider to become UC president in more than a century, Yudof, who headed the University of Texas when he was appointed here, represented change, a man not part of the old boys' club. But no president can accept a major de-emphasis of research, which would immediately diminish UC's status. For any UC president today, the future can't look as bright as the past.