Yudof addresses University’s culture

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The following is part two of an exclusive one-on-one interview with University President Mark Yudof.

When Yudof isn’t busy with basketball scandals, he pushes initiatives to make the University have more of a “service” culture.

Q: Is the University still a four-year institution?
A: It is a four-year institution in the sense that that’s the structure of our curriculum and that’s the expectation we try to hold people to. But in a descriptive sense, you’re right, I think only about a third of our students graduate in four years; many are taking five or six years. So — in terms of what we aspire to with trying to improve class availability and easing registration and things like that — we’re still operating on a four-year basis. The reason we have the (freshman) convocation is to impress upon new students that if you enter in 2000, you’re in the class of 2004, not 2005 or 2006. But obviously we have a particular type of student population. Most of our students are self-supporting; 80 percent of them work. A number of students work full-time and take a semester or a year off to earn money or to take a respite from higher education and come back. I’d like to improve the four-year graduation rate, but you have to recognize that our students, by and large, are contributing substantially to their own support which inevitably forces you to spend more time here.
Q: Given your popularity and the ease with which many of your proposals are passed, have you ever made a mistake?
A: Both my strength and weakness is that I’m a very impatient fellow. I figure you ought to come to work every morning and try to make the University a better place. I’ve discovered that it requires a lot of consultation and bringing a lot of people on board to get it done.
I think there were mistakes. On the women’s soccer field, I think we could have done a much better job of touching base with the neighborhood before we ever went out in that direction. Since then we’ve completely redone our community affairs group and stayed in better touch with our neighbors. I think going ahead was rather naive on my part. Not understanding what the fallout might be within those neighborhoods was a mistake on my part.
Q: What has been your best accomplishment as president?
A: In 1998, we laid out a supplementary appropriations bill, and the Legislature and (former Gov. Arne) Carlson endorsed it. We picked out some areas of priority at the University — molecular and cellular biology, digital technology, agriculture, a design institute and a new media institute.
One of the things I’m happy about is that I didn’t seem to pick any losers. Now I didn’t pick them by myself; I had a lot of help. If one of those had gone south on me it would have been a problem. They’ve attracted a lot of additional money from donors and grants.
Another thing is the “Beautiful U” strategy — the idea that we ought to be a more comfortable campus for students and faculty. We have fixed up a couple of hundred classrooms. We did redo Murphy and Ford (halls). We are building a whole lot of residence halls for our students. We have repainted the Washington Avenue Bridge, tried to grow more flowers and plant more trees. I just think it helps morale.
We’ve stubbed our toes, by the way. PeopleSoft was a real problem for thousands of students. We’ve probably fixed it and gotten it right now. Believe it or not, it was an effort to make things easier for students to get their financial aid. There were more bugs in the PeopleSoft program than anyone anticipated.
My theory is you should never wait more than five minutes in line; you shouldn’t have to take one piece of paper from one part of the campus to another to get a sign-off; and your adviser should know something about you. We haven’t got there. It’s hard building a service culture.
Q: In your recent State of the University address, you said it is embarrassing that some of the University’s full-time employees make $10 an hour. What should the minimum be and why?
A: I think when you get into an adequate living wage reasonable people can debate exactly how you set that. I’ve taken more of a gradual approach and there are markets out there. It may not be fair in God’s eyes, but Babe Ruth was paid more than (U.S. President) Calvin Coolidge in his prime years. I suspect we will always be paying engineering professors more money than humanities professors.
My point was that $10 an hour produces roughly a $20,000 annual stipend. Who can live on $20,000 a year? What I’m trying to do is get it up to $24,000 or $25,000. But I can’t absolutely promise that I can buy into some definition of a living wage. It also depends on how many dependents you have. I felt that no one could defend a $10-an-hour wage, and maybe not everyone can defend a $12-an-hour wage, but it costs us over a $1.5 million to do that. It seems to me we’re sufficiently low. Maybe it’s the common law method, but one step at a time you try to make it right.
Q: What’s your opinion of student government, specifically the Minnesota Student Association? The general consensus on campus is that its members are nothing more than political wanna-bes who are filling their resumes. Besides that, most people don’t think they accomplish anything.
A: I’m not prepared to criticize. If students have criticisms, they ought to change it. I have to rely upon you to elect your own leaders, you don’t want the president fooling around in that. But what I want is leaders that represent the University as a whole. I worry about the low student turnout for these elections. When someone gets 400, 500, 600 votes and is the winner out of a population of 40,000, I worry that they’re not generally representative of the larger interest of students on campus.
Q: Housing has been a big issue around campus this fall. To deal with the campus housing crunch, the University has turned to public-private, large-scale developments like University Village. In many cases the housing comes with several amenities but at a significant cost. Is this the best way to deal with the “affordable” housing crisis?
A: There is construction on the West Bank on the Riverbend Commons, I think something like (a) 400- or 500-bed residence hall will be constructed in that large hole in the ground. If you include University Village, we’re adding well over 1,000 to 1,200 beds.
I get a lot of complaints about Dinkytown housing, so maybe it’s less expensive for a reason.
Frankly, prices have actually been held down. Most of our residence halls are paid off, so we don’t owe any money on the bonds. So what we do is, when we construct a new residence, we do not ask people to pay the actual cost. It’s below cost. We spread a housing increase across all the residence halls to pay off the initial bond. But the thing people need to understand is we can cross-subsidize housing and parking and to some extent we do. Instead of charging just the people living in the new residence hall everything at-cost — which would add $200 to $300 a month for rent — we spread it across everyone and it is a smaller increase. But since we don’t get any state subsidy and unless you want me to take money away from liberal arts or new student technology or something, it has to sort of pay its own way. And we’re primarily an educational institution, so I’m very sensitive to that. Every time we cross-subsidize some service, there’s that much less money available for you-name-it. There’s really only one pot of money out there. It’s difficult. I wish I could give students more relief. Ultimately, I think the answer is more copious scholarships; the financial aid route is probably a better route. From our perspective, we’re holding (prices) down because, on the new construction, we’re actually leasing it for less than we’re paying the loans.
Q: All that being said, why are athletes given what could be perceived special treatment? Excluding walk-ons, nearly 70 percent of the Gophers football team live in either Roy Wilkins Hall or University Village — the two newest and nicest housing options on campus.
A: I don’t have the answer for that today. I’ve asked (Vice President for Administration) Tonya Brown — athletics reports to her — to look into it. That was one of the issues when we looked at the basketball program more broadly. There are two concerns. On the one hand, if you’re doing all these away games and so forth, you need to make sure there is a place for them. I accept the criticism. I think it would probably be better if they were more spread around. The NCAA has gotten away from designated residence halls for athletes and that’s good because you want your athletes to mix with the general population. For your readers, all I can say is that I’ve asked someone to look into it. Hopefully, with building so many residence halls, this won’t be a problem. But it does, on the surface, appear that they have received some priority in new housing, at least that’s what the numbers show.
Q: Do you see yourself at the University for a long time?
I always say I like playing offense but not defense. I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life here on basketball scandals and things like that. But as long as you hire more faculty, offer better programs for students, move the University up nationally and internationally, and do whatever it is to make this a better place, you can be very creative and you feel the sense of improvement and increased morale on campus. Right now, I feel pretty good about that. I don’t know how long presidents stay. These are tough jobs. As long as I have the feeling that progress is being made and the positives greatly outweigh the negatives, then I’ll be here.