Fare thee well Mark Yudof

When Mark Yudof arrived at the University in 1997, historic campus buildings were crumbling and the faculty was still roiling after a grueling tenure battle. Confidence in the University had waned, and state support was steadily on the decline. In Yudof, the Board of Regents sought stability and vision. They sought a clear focus and the political wits to woo legislators. And through his five years as University president, Yudof delivered. He was a smart, effective leader who helped restore morale despite a seemingly endless series of public scandals in the athletics department. He aptly steered the University through lean financial times, although he was too quick to turn to tuition increases to make up for budget shortfalls. On the whole, Yudof did his job well. And we hope the regents seek a qualified replacement to continue Yudof’s vision, with some warranted modifications.

Here’s a look at some of Yudof’s accomplishments and shortcomings and what we would like to see in a new president:

Campus construction: One of Yudof’s first acts as president was to launch a massive campaign to beautify the University campus. The effort sought to restore pride and morale in the physical campus that had long been neglected. While the painting and shrubs were at times a bit much, the spiffed-up campus has been a welcome change. The new facilities will also help spur cutting-edge research. Although Yudof will be leaving before some of the major improvements are finished, the projects will surely be his most visible legacy. A new president should keep the campus tidy, but be mindful not to clutter the campus with excessive flag planting and maroon-and-gold overkill.

Athletics: Unfortunately, Yudof was forced to spend much of his time quelling fires sparked by impropriety in the athletics departments. It is widely known that Yudof detested dealing with the successive scandals. However, he handled them well. He got the facts and acted decisively. Some critics charged that Yudof was too quick to buy out former coach Clem Haskins’ contract. However, in the long view, the action was the right one, as it allowed the team to move forward, and the University eventually recouped an acceptable amount from Haskins. A new president needs to understand the lessons of the scandal: the importance of vigilant oversight and effective decision making. The new president must have a strong commitment to transparency.

Yudof also had to deal with financial troubles in the athletics departments not associated with misconduct. He understood that the University should not be in the business of subsidizing an athletics department. With an even-handed approach, Yudof began long-overdue reforms, including merging the men’s and women’s departments and placing a moratorium on facilities construction. A new president should boldly continue with athletics reforms until an appropriate balance is struck between athletics and academics.

Research priorities: A key part of Yudof’s vision was improving research at the University. Arguing that the University is the economic engine of the state, he wanted to make the University a leader in cellular and molecular biology, digital technology, new media and agricultural research. Yudof emphasized the transfer of technology from public research to private use and held a summit on Minnesota’s economy in 2000. Yudof helped the University make large gains in those areas, and, as a result, became a darling of the business community. Increasingly, under Yudof’s leadership, the University turned to private funds from corporations. A new president must have a strong understanding of the importance of research for the betterment of general human understanding and be vigilant that research in the public interest be held in high value.

Tuition: During Yudof’s tenure, the steep rises in the costs of an education at the University were alarming. Last year, tuition and fees rose by 13.6 percent. This year they will increase by 16 percent. As state support dries up, Yudof said, the money to keep the University competitive needs to come from somewhere. And increasingly, he turned to private dollars and students to bear the burden. A new president must understand that the financial pressures on students have reached their breaking point. Similar hikes next year would likely not go over as well, and would put college further out of reach for many deserving and determined students. To stay in school, many students are forced to juggle several jobs. It is crucial that a new president keep tuition as low as possible and keep the University accessible – a proud tradition in Minnesota that is in jeopardy.

Graduation rates: With the University’s graduation rates among the lowest in the Big Ten, Yudof cracked the whip on straggling students. He initiated a plan to make every credit after 13 free, a welcome effort. By the end of his tenure, graduation rates rose, although slightly. Improving graduation rates is a worthy goal. However, the new president should be mindful that steep tuition hikes often force struggling students to work longer hours, which slows graduation.

At the Legislature: Yudof, the cherubic Texan with a fancy for pancakes, often charmed legislators with his quick wit and self-deprecating humor. However, when it came time to fund the University, Yudof’s charms came up short. Most recently, he was denied $24 million for a Translational Research Center that he wanted badly. After several defeats, Yudof came to the conclusion that the long-term political winds had shifted. He spoke widely about a “hybrid university,” where public institutions rely heavily on private funding to make up for the public shortfalls. It is important that a new president have the requisite political skills to make the case to the state and the Legislature that we cannot have an affordable, first-class university without public support.

It’s understandable that Yudof would return to Texas, where he lived for 26 years. All along, he has said that the days when university presidents stuck around for 10 years or more are gone. Much like today’s corporate executives, presidents come and go, seeking better opportunities elsewhere. But he leaves Minnesota with large shoes to fill. And it’s our hope that the Board of Regents launches an aggressive search for a new president and lures someone with the talent and gumption to build on what Yudof has begun.