Trying to save the UC

System’s president is on the road selling his university

Mark Yudof is short, round and bald and, as he joked Tuesday (April 17) during a talk at the Chico Chamber of Commerce offices, in his four years living in California he’s “adjusted to In-N-Out burgers” but not “tofu and sprouts.”

He’s also smart, articulate and knowledgeable, just what you’d expect from the president of the most prestigious public university system in the world, the University of California. He’s personable, too, a trait he’s putting to use these days as he travels the state to educate folks about the value of higher education and the myths and misperceptions about the UC in particular.

Those myths, he told a group of journalists and civic leaders, include the notion that tuition is going up because getting a degree costs more now. Not true, Yudof said. A degree is 15 percent cheaper for the university now than it was a few years ago. Tuition is going up because the state is funding 60 percent less than it did 20 years ago.

Another myth, Yudof said, is that low-income students are being hurt by the tuition hikes. In fact, most low-income students pay little or no tuition and receive additional aid in the form of Pell and Cal grants. The families being hit hardest are those in the middle with incomes of, say, $120,000 annually, who must pay full tuition ($11,300) and other expenses that can total $25,000 or more.

That said, the UC remains highly affordable, Yudof insisted. Combined with the CSU and the community colleges, it provides a tremendous higher-education bargain.

Another myth is that student debt is skyrocketing. The truth is that the average UC student graduates $17,000 in debt, “less than the cost of a new car. What can I say? I think [a UC degree] is worth it.”

But the system is extremely vulnerable right now. If Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax package doesn’t pass in November, it will trigger a $200 million cut in January, “God knows what the tuition increase will look like then,” Yudof said.

Most people simply don’t know all the ways the UC system, with its 10 campuses, its research centers, its 58 Nobel laureates and its five world-class teaching hospitals, benefits the state. California’s decline in investment in one of its greatest assets weighs heavily on Yudof, which is why he was in Chico this week. “My job when I wake up every morning is to try to save the greatest university system in the world,” he said.

Adiós, Clif: I’ve known a lot of folks at City Hall over the years, and Clif Sellers, who died April 13, was one of the best of a fine lot. As a longtime fixture in the Planning Department until he retired a few years ago, he was always friendly, knowledgeable, patient and, most important for this journalist, accessible and open. If I had questions or needed to brush up on city planning arcana, he would go out of his way to help. He believed in and practiced transparency and accountability, and he always put the city’s interest first. You can’t ask more of a public servant than that.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.