November 15, 2019

Mark Yudof on Jews, Israel and his UC presidency

When Mark G. Yudof arrived at University of California headquarters in Oakland in 2008 to take over as president of the 10-campus system, among the problems awaiting him were charges that administrators on the Irvine campus were not protecting Jewish students against hate speech and intimidation by Muslim student groups and from invited outside speakers.

The issue of Jews and Israel has not left his immediate agenda in the five years he’s held the highest spot in one of the most esteemed public university systems in the country. As Yudof prepares to vacate his office in late August, he is now facing a re-energized BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) movement that has seen student governments at UC Riverside, San Diego and Irvine petition campus administrators and the University of California as a whole, to divest from companies “profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine” and similar accusations. (The pro-BDS vote at UC Riverside was rescinded in a subsequent vote.)

In a wide-ranging interview recently, Yudof explained that he confronts these and related problems from three perspectives.

• As chief executive of an organization with 220,000 students, 185,000 faculty and staff, a $23 billion annual budget (of which 11 percent  comes from the state), 10 campuses, five medical centers and three affiliated national laboratories.

• As a respected authority on constitutional law and the First Amendment and a former law school professor and dean.

• And, finally, as a deeply committed Jew and unabashed supporter of Israel.

How to handle the BDS petition is relatively easy for Yudof, as well as for the chancellors heading individual campuses. In 2010, the UC’s governing Board of Regents laid down the policy that the university would only divest from companies doing business with a foreign government if that regime was committing acts of genocide. The U.S. government has never issued such a declaration about Israel.

As a First Amendment authority, Yudof believes fully that BDS advocates, like all other campus members, have the right to express their opinions, emphasizing, “I’m not in the business of suppressing free speech.”

And, he added, “We [as Jews] are People of the Book and we have benefited more from free speech than almost any other group in this country.” 

Yet neither the UC presidency nor the Constitution saves Yudof from considerable soul searching as a private citizen and as a Jew.

“For me, it is an excruciating conflict when people demean everything that Judaism stands for,” he said with some emotion. “Some of these speakers and what they say drive me to distraction, and I hate it.”

He also can’t help wondering about the double standard of the Israel boycotters in ignoring the 70,000 Syrians killed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, or the many Libyans who perished during the dictatorship of Muammar Gadhafi.

Yudof said he is ready and willing to discuss campus conflicts with BDS leaders but is not aware of any requests by the group to meet with him.

[RELATED: The off-campus Yudoff]

He has, however, received considerable and often heated correspondence from Jewish organizations and individuals, and said he tries to respond to all of them, “both from a legal viewpoint and in a more personal capacity.”

The Journal asked the UC president about two other concerns raised by Jewish student groups on campus. One focuses on the students’ perceived threats to their personal safety, particularly during “Apartheid” and “Palestine Awareness” weeks, and the seeming lack of protective measures from campus administrators.

Yudof said he had heard anecdotal reports about such charges but felt hard data was needed, so in 2010 he established the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. This body, in turn, formed two fact-finding task forces, one to examine the attitudes and grievances of Jewish students, the other to do a similar study on Arab and Muslim students.

The Jewish-student study, conducted over a seven-month period at six campuses, yielded a series of conclusions and recommendations, which in turn were met with controversy, but two points stood out:

Political and social opinions among Jewish students were diverse and often opposed, even on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and while many such students felt resentment and outrage at some charges and tactics by Muslim student groups, none of the Jews interviewed said they felt in physical danger on campus.

A second, separate concern was voiced by observant Jewish students and faculty, who pointed to a lack of both understanding of and facilities for the special needs of their religious observance. Yudof said he also could not recall specific complaints along that line, but if he received any he would pursue the issue with the appropriate campus chancellors.

As important as these issues are to the Jewish community, and to Yudof personally, they nevertheless represent only a small fraction of the pressures of the UC president’s role.

“I’m on call 24 hours a day,” he noted. “Every day is a challenge; every day there is some kind of crisis, an athletic scandal, funds missing somewhere or a student confrontation.”

Such small and big crises also occur at other universities, but they are magnified by the sheer size and complexity of the University of California system. Or, as Yudof put it, “This job is akin to steering the Pentagon.”

Asked what has given him the most grief during his five years on the job, Yudof appeared most annoyed by what he described as a “grand narrative,” which he blamed largely on the media, that “poor kids can’t get into the university, tuition is out of control, and the empty suits are getting all the paychecks.”

As a man who carries a copy of the First Amendment with him at all times, Yudof is also offended by campus incidents that he feels violate constitutional free-speech guarantees.

“In my previous 10 years at two major universities, I never had [UC Regents] board meetings closed down by occupations or demonstrations,” he said.

Along similar lines, Yudof said, “No one has the constitutional right to shout down a speaker,” referring to a 2010 incident at UC Irvine, in which Muslim students methodically disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Among Yudof’s accomplishments, which even most of his critics acknowledge, is that the UC today is a much better governed institution than it was five years ago.

The improvements, he said, are due to such unglamorous but important steps as cutting phone bills in half, adhering to budget limitations, instituting pension reform and, in general, running “a more parsimonious operation.”

Yudof also expressed pride in establishing the Blue and Gold Scholarship Program, under which the university waives undergraduate tuition fees for California students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year.

He also pointed out that of the five campus chancellors he has appointed, three are women and one of the two men is a native of India.

On balance, Yudof believes that he has succeeded in maintaining UC’s national and international standing “during the university’s worst period in 75 years.”

Despite budget cuts, the UC has retained an outstanding faculty, its Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses are consistently ranked among the top 10 public universities in the country, and currently close to 100,000 student applicants are trying to get into UCLA — the highest number for any U.S. university, he said.

And why not? Yudof asked rhetorically. “UCLA has a great faculty and student body, palm trees — what can’t you find at UCLA?”

The competition to enroll on a UC campus leads to some intense pressures on university administrators, though decisions are generally handled at a level below the president’s office.

However, Yudof acknowledged that he has written letters of recommendation for two applicants — and both were rejected by campus admission officers. “That shows you how much clout I have,” he observed wryly.

When he retires from the UC presidency and becomes a law professor on the Berkeley campus, Yudof said he hopes to finally have time for some personal projects.

Media reports have attributed Yudof’s retirement to his health, but in the interview he emphasized other reasons.

“I’ll be 69 in October, and after [my wife] Judy and I discussed the matter, we decided that as a law professor I would be under less stress,” he said. “I won’t be on call 24 hours a day. … What I want is a little less attention.”

He will also be able to resume his writing, and, with his deadpan humor, he cited one particular project.

“I might do a book on the governors I dealt with as head of the state universities in Minnesota, Texas and California,” he proposed, namely ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, George W. Bush and Rick Perry of Texas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

“That was a most interesting set of governors,” Yudof observed. “I could write a chapter on each one of them.”