Five years on a tightrope: Outgoing U.C. president reflects on Judaism and defense of free speech

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Throughout his tenure as the president of the University of California, Mark Yudof has gotten an earful from complainers. Mostly he accepted it as part of the job, but occasionally the sniping got to him.

“I’ve had people tell me the First Amendment was not for privileged people like Jews,” he told j. in a recent interview. “I almost lost it at that.”

But he didn’t lose it. As a former law professor and constitutional scholar, Yudof made it a point of pride to defend the First Amendment on campus, even when it came to speech he as a Jew personally loathed.

Mark Yudof photo/u.c. office of the president

At the end of August, Yudof, 69, will step down from his post, citing health reasons. Recent orthopedic and abdominal surgeries took their toll, and though he feels he could stay on the job, Yudof now wants to explore new opportunities.

“I’m not planning to retire,” he said. “I just felt I needed a less hectic lifestyle.”

Named U.C. president in 2008 to replace Robert Dynes, who served from 2003-2008, Yudof has had his share of triumphs and disappointments.

Coming in, he inherited a U.C. system — nearly 250,000 students, 10 campuses, five medical centers and three national laboratories — in the throes of a budget crisis. “The first job was to close an immediate $1 billion hole in our budget, created by cutbacks in state support,” Yudof wrote in a statement on the U.C. president’s website.

He made progress on the budget, addressed the system’s pensions problems, streamlined business practices and saw graduation rates increase. It came at a price. According to Huffington Post, he cut $813 million, or 20 percent, of the system’s budget in 2009, and in 2011 he cut another $500 million.

Simultaneously, Yudof oversaw big hikes in tuition. According to the Los Angeles Times, tuition rose from $7,517 a year for California resident undergraduates in 2007 to $12,192 this year (not including room and board). “The increases triggered frequent protests from students and many sarcastic references to Yudof’s $591,000 salary and hefty pension,” the Times noted.

California State Senator Leland Yee was not a Yudof fan. When Yudof announced his retirement, Lee said, “Unfortunately, under [his] leadership, students and workers unfairly suffered while top executives got wealthier. To make matters worse, Yudof leaves the university with a $1 million pension that will be paid on the backs of students and taxpayers.”

For the Jewish community, the Yudof era will be remembered largely for a string of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents that, at least to some, pushed against the boundaries of free speech.

Item: November 2008, a fistfight breaks out in front of Eschelman Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus when pro-Palestinian protestors disrupt a pro-Israel concert by unfurling a Palestinian flag above the stage. No arrests are made.

Item: February 2010. Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is shouted down during a speech at U.C. Irvine, with students yelling “killer” and “how many Palestinians did you kill?” Charges are filed against 11 students, 10 of them stand trial and are found guilty, and the school’s Muslim Student Union is hit with a short suspension plus two years of probation.

Item: March 2011. Two Jewish U.C. Berkeley students who claimed they were assaulted during “Israel Apartheid Week” the year before sue Yudof and U.C. for tolerating a climate of anti-Semitism on campus. The suit is eventually dropped.

Item: March 2012. Louis Farrakhan, known for inflammatory statements about Jews and Israel, speaks at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis. Yudof calls the Nation of Islam leader “a provocative, divisive figure with a long history of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic speech,” but defends Farrakhan’s right to appear on campus.

Through it all, Yudof consistently defended free speech rights. “I viewed my job as president of U.C. as defending free speech and people’s right to express themselves, even if others disagree,” he said.

However, Yudof says he does worry about the climate for Jews on campus and beyond.

“We had examples in history, in Germany and France, of Jews being highly integrated culturally, and all of sudden things went to hell in a hand basket,” he reflected. “We’ve had too many bad experiences as a people.”

To assess the situation system-wide, three years ago Yudof commissioned the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate, a 17-member panel that surveyed Jewish and Muslim students and faculty and issued a report.

The report on anti-Semitism concluded that Jewish students at all U.C. schools “were clear that the most pervasive negative issue[s] impacting their daily experiences on campus were intergroup challenges related to political disagreements about the state of Israel and Palestine.”

In 2010, U.C. President Mark Yudof at the Rose Project Distinguished Lecture Series at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach   photo/aaron huniu photography

In 2010, U.C. President Mark Yudof at the Rose Project Distinguished Lecture Series at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach photo/aaron huniu photography

The authors went on to recommend U.C. come up with a working definition of anti-Semitism, ban hate speech and possibly even ban certain activities that could be deemed offensive to some groups.

Yudof, whose office is in Oakland, and the Board of Regents rejected those recommendations, which opened the door to criticism from some in the Jewish community, who viewed that stance as being tolerant of anti-Jewish hate speech.

During his tenure, Yudof often met with Hillel staff members and students. He also made it clear that on his watch no U.C. campus would ever divest from Israel, no matter what non-binding resolutions might pass student government. Overall, he believes Jewish students at U.C. schools are doing well.

On the other hand, he does not deny or minimize the hurt and fear some have felt during anti-Israel demonstrations, which have taken place at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Irvine, among others.

“It takes only one incident to ruin the whole year,” Yudof said. “I honestly believe some Jewish students do feel insecure on some campuses.”

Davis-Sacramento Hillel director Chani Oppenheim praised Yudof for his outreach. “He brought a high level of intelligence and sensitivity to his position,” she said. “He presented himself in a very thoughtful manner and impressed me as a human being.”

She also admired Yudof’s ability to walk the line between being a proud Jew and a U.C. president for all students, and his oversight of the 2008 reinstatement of U.C.’s study-abroad program in Israel. For six years, it had been suspended after the State Department added Israel to its travel advisory list.

One leader sorry to see Yudof go is California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sits on the U.C. Board of Regents as part of his official duties.

“I admire Mark greatly,” Newsom said. “I think he did a wonderful job with the system, and professionalized it. His instincts in most instances have been right, but more importantly, the job of a leader is organizing a great team. He has an exceptionally gifted team around him.”

Judy Yudof

Yudof said one of his most gratifying achievements was the launch of the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which is aimed at enrolling students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

At one time, it could have been Yudof applying for the program. He grew up the son of an electrician in a blue-collar neighborhood of Philadelphia. After earning a law degree, he went on to teach law and serve in the administration of the University of Texas at Austin.

Yudof served as president of the University of Minnesota from 1997 to 2002, then returned to Texas as chancellor of the U.T. system from 2002 to 2008. His wife, Judy Yudof, formerly served as president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and currently sits on its board as well as the international board of Hillel.

She says she admires her husband, particularly the way he walked the line between free expression and criticizing what he saw as inflammatory speech.

“He certainly understands constitutional rights and limitations,” she said. “He will not be bullied by those who try to overreach in either extreme. Mark has had to act fairly to protect the rights of all students. But he has made no secret [of the fact] that he is pro-Israel.”

She adds that the couple began what she calls their “joint venture in Judaism” during their first stint in Texas, when they connected with the vibrant Jewish community of Austin. “We joined a synagogue,” she said, “and that’s how our education began. It really became part of our lives.”

After moving to the Bay Area in 2008, the couple joined Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, and Judy has her hands full sitting on several local boards, including Contra Costa Jewish Day School and the Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee. She is also the president of the Contra Costa JCC, which continues to operate as a nonprofit even though it has no programming, services or location.

Her husband will leave his U.C. post knowing things are not perfect. Budget cuts have hurt, and tuition hikes have outraged students. On the other hand, despite all the cutbacks, resulting in perhaps a less-glittery U.C. system, a feared exodus of faculty in search of greener pastures never materialized, Yudof said.

All in all, he feels he made a difference for the better.

“You may not have had the revolution you wanted,” Yudof said, “but you can leave the world better than when you arrived. So I’ve enjoyed it.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.