Yudof plan: good news for J-School

When Mark Yudof was named University president a year-and-a-half ago, some constituents were concerned with “the vision thing.” No one argued the Texas provost’s competence, but the bespectacled pancake eater came off as charismatically challenged. And at a place that was reeling from a tenure debacle, years of Medical School scandal and Pepsi withdrawal, leadership of biblical proportions seemed necessary to take the University out of the wilderness and into the promised land.
Now, at the end of this year’s legislative bonding session, the first big test of Yudof’s presidency is behind him. It’s still unlikely that many would call him a visionary, with the word’s connotations of passion, prophecy and an inspirational, dynamic leadership style. But it doesn’t take much vision to see the many people smiling around campus these days. They’re smiling because, passion or no passion, Yudof had a plan. And the plan passed, putting in place the first part of a new, improved University.
One of the people smiling is Al Tims, the interim director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Note the “interim” in the title. Tims is the stopgap leader of a department that’s been in turmoil for more than a decade. For a few months this fall, Tims’ responsibilities seemed to include leading memorial services for the journalism department. Worn down by attrition from about 30 full-time faculty 15 years ago to 13, the department underwent a task force evaluation last fall that recommended its demise.
The proposed merger between mass communication and speech communication ultimately failed from a lack of faculty backing. In the meantime, University pronouncements on the importance of a strong J-School meant that when funding time came around, journalism revitalization became an important part of the budget request. Revamping the J-School wasn’t part of a grand vision Yudof brought to the University. It was simply a good idea worth including in a record, $249 million state bonding request.
For the journalism department, the opportunity was unprecedented. “We’ve never had an administration that really made journalism this kind of a priority,” Tims said. “If we hadn’t had this kind of support from the top of the University, any funding opportunities wouldn’t have happened.”
Of course, retooling journalism was only one of many items on the agenda. A molecular and cellular biology facility, completion of Architecture building renovations, and the overhaul of Walter Library were all part of the University’s request. Once again, these items weren’t so much an out-of-the-blue vision as a list of long-overdue needs to be filled — and this was the year to fill them.
Yudof offered the proposal as a single package, which was a risky move — legislators like items prioritized so they can cut them without thinking. Lobbyists, students and faculty, especially in the J-School, mobilized to support the full request. But when both the House and Senate slashed the University’s proposal, it appeared that Yudof’s plan had backfired.
“We wanted to have a united front for the whole thing,” said Donna Peterson, a University Relations representative who led legislative lobbying efforts. “Internally, the University was very much a team — and acting as one University helped a lot” in persuading legislators to support full funding. But despite a strong economy, a record state surplus and a bonding proposal from Gov. Arne Carlson that made past funding bills seem like pocket change, many legislative conservatives preached restraint. Weekly tax protests mushroomed during the session, as thousands gathered to demand fewer programs and more tax cuts. And sports issues like Norm Coleman’s Trojan horse, the Minnesota Wild, and Carl Pohlad’s dead horse, the Minnesota Twins, lurked in the background.
With other items dominating discussion, serious attention to the University’s request seemed destined to be lost in politics. “There was a certain anxiety when the Minnesota Wild discussion started holding up progress until literally the 59th minute of the 11th hour,” Tims said, as he realized that journalism funding could be lost in all the deal-making. “But it was important to stick with the process.” Peterson, meanwhile, was scrambling to make an end run around the legislature. Her strategy? Get the money. Get all the money. But be creative about it.
University lobbyists proposed that a 1990 rule requiring universities to pay one-third of the debt service for state bonding be modified. Instead of paying the service, under the modification the University would post its own bonds for one-third of the combined University and state bond allocation. Rather than share the total bonding debt, the state would cover the debt service for all of the programs it decided to fund, but not have any responsibility for those the University funded on its own. In return for shouldering an increased risk, the University received a mandate to go ahead on all its projects.
Thus, even as the University held the line on funding, the line began to show some flexibility. Just give us the authority to bond the rest ourselves, lobbyists said to legislators, and we’ll take care of projects you don’t think you can fund.
It also became clear that not every project was going to get every dime the University wanted, regardless of the source. The $70 million molecular and cellular biology project was too much to swallow in one bite, so University administrators decided to portion it out. Even so, every requested item survived the session in some form — an impressive accomplishment.
Renovation of Murphy Hall, the centerpiece of the effort to revive journalism, was no exception. Murphy renovation, which was having problems getting state support, received full funding under the new plan. In Murphy, faculty and students are celebrating their department’s rough ride back from the grave. “I can’t say enough about how this process really energized students,” Tims said. “The faculty is really energized by what’s been happening, and I’ve never seen University leadership, faculty and students closer together.”
Creative funding saved Murphy’s renovation; meanwhile, funds from the University’s $36 million supplemental budget appropriation could add as many as nine full-time faculty to the J-School, and work on Murphy could begin as soon as this summer.
A new day is dawning at the J-School, and it’s a brighter one than those they’ve just survived. Instead of fighting for pieces of an ever-dwindling pie, future faculty decisions will focus on directing new resources — a dramatic reversal of the department’s fortunes. “We’re moving right ahead,” on plans to remodel Murphy, hire new faculty and revamp curriculum, Tims said. Some changes will be in place this fall, and a revamped Murphy could appear as soon as next year.
And so, with some adjustments, the President’s plan — not a vision, a plan — pulled through. Ultimately Yudof’s leadership made a big difference. “He was very much the leader in this process,” Peterson said. “He was a leader not only in the Legislature, but for the internal University audience as well.”
Peterson acknowledges that the president isn’t exactly the second coming of JFK in the charisma department, but “he very much gets things done. He conveys confidence, and he conveys his ability to solve problems to people. That inspires them to trust him.”
Of course, receiving generous funding in a record bonding year could be considered a no-brainer. And the creative funding plan, in and of itself, is perhaps more of a well-planned fiscal sleight-of-hand than a master stroke. But given the University’s sometimes antagonistic relationship with state government, this year’s legislative effort is worthy of congratulations.
And it wasn’t done with charisma. Charisma might be overrated anyway — Norm Coleman has it, and look at what people are saying about that arena-panderer now. It doesn’t take a prophet to make a plan, and it doesn’t take passion to produce results. Mark Yudof was not, and never should be, considered a “visionary.” But a lot of people around here are seeing a better future, a future built on a solid, lasting foundation.
You can skip the vision thing, Mark. We’ll take the plan.
Alan Bjerga’s column appears Wednesday’s in the Daily. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]