The new president of the University of California’s 10 campuses and 220,000 students keeps a kosher home, lectures on Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” as intellectual stimulation and spends Yom Kippur at the synagogue.
It might not be enough.
“The higher I rise in the administration, the more difficult it is to do all my atoning in one day,” Mark Yudof observes.
He is also an unabashed supporter of Israel, where he is spending the week of June 30-July 7 as co-leader of a high-powered group of American university presidents and chancellors.
Barely a week on the job, and facing a bruising budget battle, Yudof took time out for a wide-ranging interview, a good part focusing on the writings of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and biblical interpreter.
After holding the top job at the University of Texas, and before that at the University of Minnesota, Yudof, 63, arrived in California, “with 19 sets of dishes,” to take the helm of the world’s leading public research university and its $18 billion operating budget.
He came as “an energizer, outgoing, who at meetings rarely lets a moment pass without a quip,” a Texas newspaper reported.
Yudof’s self-description adds to the picture.
“I am what I am. I have my weird sense of humor and I’m proud of it. What I’ve found works best for me is transparency, being direct and being honest,” he said.
As president, a Jew and veteran law professor, widely recognized as an authority on constitutional law and freedom of expression, Yudof faces one problem widely reported in the media.
Over the past five years, Jewish students and spokespersons have repeatedly charged that the administration on the UC Irvine campus, now headed by Chancellor Michael Drake, has failed to protect Jewish students against hate speech and intimidation by invited outside speakers and Muslim student groups.
Yudof said he was aware of the hate speech charges, adding that for him, “It is an excruciating conflict when people demean everything that Judaism stands for. Some of these speakers and what they say drive me to distraction, and I hate it,” noting that he had encountered anti-Semitism as a youth and on a couple of occasions in his academic career.
“On the other hand,” he added, “I teach constitutional law, and I have a deep commitment to the First Amendment, which has served us well over time. How do you reconcile that as a Jewish man? It is horrendously difficult.”
As co-leader of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange trip to Israel, Yudof, even before he became UC president, had invited Drake to be part of the group, and thinks the experience will be beneficial for both of them.
At the same time, Yudof warmly defended Drake.
“I’ve had several conversations with the chancellor, and he has a great heart and enormous sympathy for the Jewish people,” he said. “He is a mensch. Because I take anti-Semitism so personally, I think I can give him some good advice.”
Yudof said he will discuss the issue when he addresses the Hadassah National Convention in Los Angeles on July 14.
Yudof faces somewhat the same conflict between his official duties and personal feelings in handling the problem of UC students who want to study in Israel for a year.
The university’s official Education Abroad Program in Israel was suspended in 2002, following a U.S. State Department’s travel warning for the area.
Although UC has recently come up with some roundabout alternatives, these are cumbersome and make it difficult to assure academic credit for the Israeli courses.
After Yudof returned from an Israel trip last summer, he urged Hillel students at the University of Texas to study in the Jewish state, so his personal sentiments are clear.
Questioned on this issue, Yudof quickly agreed that Israel is a safe place and put the responsibility for the problem on Washington.
“I had the same difficulty at the University of Minnesota,” he said. “We need to talk seriously with the State Department and get officials to revise the rules.”
Yudof was born in Philadelphia, the son of an electrician. Despite his long academic career, he has never quite lost his taste for the blue-collar lifestyle, which includes frequent meals at pancake diners.
“I’m always looking for the perfect pancake,” he said.
His forebears on both sides came to America from Ukraine in the 1890s and over the generations went from Orthodox to atheism to Conservative Judaism.
“I’m much more religious than my grandfather,” he said.
Yudof joined the flagship campus of the University of Texas at Austin in 1971 as assistant professor of law, rising over the following 26 years to full professor and dean.
After a five-year stint as University of Minnesota president, Yudof returned to Texas in 2002, this time as chancellor of the multicampus system.
He credits his wife Judy (the couple has two adult children) with intensifying his Jewish observance and connection, inside and outside the house.
She is the immediate past international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing 760 synagogues, the first woman to hold the post in the organization’s 93-year history.
When she assumed the presidency, she bluntly told reporters, “I didn’t decide to run because I’m a woman, but because I have the leadership skills.”
She currently serves on the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and on the international board of Hillel.
“Judy went to Israel quite often, and I went along as the bozo on her arm,” Yudof recalled. “About 20 years ago, Judy said she didn’t feel right about not keeping kosher at home, so we made the change. I’ve had no problem with it except for all those dishes when we move.”
Outside the home, Yudof eats nonkosher food, except for pork.