Yudof maintains popularity amidst allegations, media hype

Sarah McKenzie

Despite spending the past three months sorting through allegations of widespread academic fraud and sexual misconduct in men’s athletics, University President Mark Yudof’s popularity has not waned.
Some even say the president’s poise and political grace under the watchful eye of the Twin Cities’ competitive media market have heightened his stature in the state and around the country.
In fact, the University of Texas, where Yudof served as dean of the law school and provost before coming to Minnesota, is trying to lure Yudof back. According to an article in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, Texas named Yudof, a University of Pennsylvania-educated lawyer, as a possible candidate for chancellor.
In reference to the offer, Yudof told the Austin American-Statesman last month, “I think it’s very unlikely that it would be offered, and if it were offered, I sort of doubt that I’d be interested.”
Much of Yudof’s increasing popularity, supporters argue, can be attributed to the president’s confidence and openness when confronting troubling issues under intense media scrutiny.
Public relations experts herald his administration’s crisis-management style as organized, direct and forthcoming.
Al Tims, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Yudof is “brilliant” in delivering his message about the University during a rather ominous time.
“He is a journalist’s dream,” Tims said. “He is honest and candid, and doesn’t shy away from the bad news.”
Tims said Yudof understands the role of the media and refrains from becoming defensive when asked critical questions, unlike other public officials like Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“(Yudof) has been able to weather a lot of controversy,” Tims said. “He is a highly skilled representative for the University, and a highly skilled leader.”
The president’s media savvy appears to be instinctive, Tims said. The way Yudof relates to the press is consistent with his approachable attitude toward faculty members, students and citizens of the state, he said.
Yudof answers the questions directly, confronts the issues and doesn’t hide behind layers of bureaucracy, he added.
“His style is sort of textbook crisis management,” Tims said.
Yudof keeps the public abreast of the information as it unfolds, and is not afraid to make tough decisions, he said.
Susan Ahn, an information representative for the University, said she estimates that to date, 10,000 copies of University documents have been made to comply with media requests for information relating to men’s athletics.
It is unclear how much the media requests have cost the University, she said.
The University spends roughly $5 million annually for expenditures related to public and institutional relations, said Julie Tonneson, assistant budget director of the Office of Budget and Finance.
Nina Shepherd, a University public relations representative for more than a decade, said tactics on handling the media have not significantly changed since Yudof started at the University.
Shepherd took a position at the University News Service just one day before the St. Paul Pioneer Press broke the story on rampant academic fraud in the men’s basketball program.
“I think (Yudof) is very open, he has wonderful public relations skills,” Shepherd said. “He is always a great interview.”
The president has remained as accessible as possible to members of the local media throughout the basketball crisis, Shepherd said.
She said Yudof typically meets with reporters on an individual basis for 10 to 15 minutes instead of holding larger press conferences when making administrative announcements.
At times, a toy penguin sits atop the mahogany desk in his office during the interviews, a symbol of Yudof’s sense of humor and approachability.
The president’s reliance on shorter, one-on-one interviews with journalists is potentially frustrating if a reporter has a lengthy series of questions for the president, said Mary Jane Smetanka, a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Smetanka started covering the University about the same time Yudof began his presidency.
“He is very accessible, open and direct with his answers,” Smetanka said, who has worked as a news reporter for more than 20 years. “He is probably less evasive and more open than any other public official I have worked with.”
— Staff Reporter Douglas Rojas Sosa contributed to this report