Student leaders failed on Yudof issue

While thousands of students sweated over final examinations during the second week of December last year, the Board of Regents nervously tiptoed through the presidential search process. After months of public discussions and closed-door meetings, on Friday, Dec. 13, the regents unanimously accepted Mark Yudof, executive vice president and provost of the University of Texas at Austin, as the 14th president of the University.
Many Minnesotans voiced concerns about the integrity of the search process, but few chose to complain about the outcome. In a whirlwind tour of the state, Yudof impressed state legislators, University faculty members, regents and alumni.
Even Gov. Carlson, a vociferous critic of the search process, was pleased. “I regard Professor Yudof as an extraordinary candidate, and I am delighted to endorse him as the next president of the University of Minnesota. I applaud both his character and the quality of his work, and I very much applaud his commitment to success,” Carlson said.
Unfortunately, our student leaders were less than magnanimous when appraising the president-elect, and hence, students are remembered as the only major constituency not to endorse Yudof.
Matt Musel, former Minnesota Student Association president and the lone student representative on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, was one of the doubters. “He does a bland job of explaining brilliant ideas that everyone already agrees on,” he said. “They’re not challenging and they don’t take us anywhere.”
Strangely enough, this quote blatantly contradicts an editorial Musel wrote in late November: “Yudof is a very bright, wry and sensible leader who would build the University from the inside out. He is the forceful type of leader who directs action.”
Musel further compared the three presidential candidates to Piglet, Tigger and Rabbit of A.A. Milne’s “A House at Pooh Corner,” and Yudof was likened to the sensible Rabbit.
Diversity advocates apparently aren’t happy with Yudof either, even though he has promised to strive for accessibility and diversity at the University. Corey Donovan, MSA Academic Affairs chair, rhetorically asked, “I wonder how he feels about being another white male president.” Hmmm. I wonder how Donovan feels about being another white male chair of the Academic Affairs Committee.
MSA President Helen Phin did find something nice to say, “Dr. Yudof is more charismatic (than current University President Nils Hasselmo).” She attached, however, a caveat to her compliment, “Dr. Yudof could probably sell his vision to the state, and I’m really scared of that.”
Ultimately, student concerns are not served when our leaders resort to trash talk and demagoguery. As the only major constituency to withhold support for Yudof, we’re viewed as out-of-touch, irresponsible and aloof. Worse yet, student relations with the new president will immediately be strained when he officially takes office in July.
Student leaders were clearly out of touch by not supporting Yudof. Instead, they chose to continue salivating over Judith Ramaley, the president of Portland State University.
In early December, MSA held a love-in for Ramaley, and she overwhelmingly carried a nonbinding straw poll. Unfortunately, she pulled out of the race several days later citing the University community’s conflicting ideas about the school’s future and the new president’s role in leading the institution.
At this point, instead of evaluating the candidacy of Yudof, our student leaders began throwing temper tantrums.
They shouldn’t have. Yudof is a talented administrator and scholar, and he boasts a proven track record. He oversaw Compact 2000 at the University of Texas, an initiative designed to decentralize budgetary authority while increasing college accountability. He also established the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, enacted a performance-based instruction system and supervised the maintenance program.
Yudof is respected by many at his school. Students describe him as accessible, and he regularly meets with student leaders to get what he calls “consumer feedback.” Faculty members respect him, and the press secretary for a Texas senator said he has done an outstanding job lobbying on behalf of the University of Texas.
Furthermore, Yudof has admirable goals for the University. He promises to make the University one of the top five research schools in the nation, and he pledges to improve the quality of undergraduate education. Better yet, he will fight to keep tuition increases in line with inflation. Resolving the divisive tenure issue is a high priority, and Yudof addressed the need to “restore cooperation and trust and rebuild a sense of community.” He’s even optimistic about the football program and joked about taking a presidential seat at the Rose Bowl.
To be sure, Yudof’s job will not be easy. He inherits, among other things, the pending reorganization of the College of Biological Sciences and fallout from the Fairview merger. Departments are making strategic cuts across the board, and the Feds are suing for $100 million.
A lot of building (and rebuilding) is required. If our next president is to succeed, he needs the help of everyone — including the support of students.
Thankfully the new year comes with an opportunity to make amends for past mistakes. Hopefully student leaders will celebrate by welcoming Yudof instead of continuing an acrimonious debate. For the sake of the student body, I certainly hope so.

Greg Lauer’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.