03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Saving the University

University of California President Mark Yudof has suffered a lot of criticism for his decisions about the running of the university during a tremendously difficult period: the state's financial distress has forced a great reduction in the university's budget, leading to firings (staff), tuition increases (students), and furloughs (staff, faculty, and administration). Taken together, all of these threaten a severe diminution of the status of the University of California, long considered the nation's - perhaps the world's - premier research university.

Yudof argues that he is blameless: he could not have prevented, and cannot restore, the cuts. This defense is echoed, for instance, by Richard Blum, the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein and an influential member of the University's Board of Regents as reported in a recent article in the New Yorker.

I agree completely with that argument, to a degree (professors naturally talk this way). But considered differently, Mr. Yudof did have other options that could have made a significant difference, and the choices he has made may well have exacerbated an already dire situation.

In times of crisis, what is most important for the survival of an institution is the recognition, by its leaders and members, of what that institution is and a sense that, despite the crisis, members and leaders can continue to work together to achieve common goals. These understandings are of course always important, but in a crisis they become still more so, and it becomes a test of the adequacy of an institution's leadership that it strengthens, rather than weakening, those aims. But many of Mr. Yudof's utterances and actions of the last few months seem to work in the opposite direction.

To take a few instances: the furloughs (more accurately, since we are expected to fulfill our teaching commitments even though we are not being paid) to which faculty have been subjected have not been equally distributed among all faculty. Rather, they fall hardest upon those faculty in the humanities and social sciences; faculty in the natural sciences and professional schools who control large grants have been exempted. In several radio and other interviews over the last several months, Mr. Yudof explained that this decision was made because these latter faculty are more valuable to the university, and more intrinsic to the university's mission, than the others, and therefore should be protected. Both the decision itself and Mr. Yudof's defense of it have created ill-feeling among the "less intrinsic" parts of the university.

Practically, the distinction sets one part of the faculty against another - at a time when esprit de corps is utterly crucial. Symbolically it raises questions about whether the president of this university understands what a university is.

At the very least, a university president should know what a "university" is, and is not. His utterances and actions, needless to say, should arise out of that knowledge. Here Mr. Yudof's behavior is seriously amiss.

Since the Middle Ages, the university as an institution and an ideal recalls its etymological root: "universe." The university was created to function as a repository of all human knowledge, with none privileged or excluded. The university is a community of scholars, working together to understand the universe and the creatures within it. To suggest that one kind of knowledge is of more value than the others is to sow the seeds of discord and demoralization, and lose the vision that brought the university into being a millennium ago.

Take another case: Mr. Yudof remarked to Deborah Solomon in an interview in the New York Times Magazine, that "being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening."

Very funny, but at a moment when the university may literally (well, figuratively) have a foot in the grave, not all that funny. There are times when it's OK to joke a little at the expense of underlings, but at times of crisis, such remarks create an "us" (high administrators) vs. "them" (students, staff and faculty) that exacerbates an already tense situation.

Another case is a sin of omission. As noted, everyone except the "valuable" members of the university community have been subject to financial loss. It is true that the amount of the cut is tied to the size of the salary: staff takes a 4% hit, faculty 8%, and administration 10%. That's fine, but if you ask, "4% -- 8% -- 10% of what?" you can see that the hits are not equivalent across ranks.

Mr. Yudof's salary has been estimated at over $800,000 a year, plus some very nice perks (e.g., a mansion and the staff to run it). Very few faculty members outside the professional schools make much more than $150,000. Staff of course generally earn a good deal less. So lopping 10% off a top administrator's salary still leaves him or her with over $700,000+, which is much more comfortable than what happens to faculty or - even more so - staff. So we are not moved by the extent of Mr. Yudof's self-sacrifice.

If the president wanted to make a meaningful gesture, he should have ordered that everyone whose salary topped $200,000 would, for the duration of the furloughs, have that salary cut back to $200,000. It probably wouldn't have made much literal difference in UC's financial woes, but at least we would have felt that our president and other higher-ups were in solidarity with us, suffering privation equal to our own. Symbolically, that is very important.

True, all of these faux pas constitute merely symbolic actions. But human beings are symbol-using creatures, and employees of the University of California are human beings. Especially when things are at their worst, symbolism can make a tremendous difference.

The president of a university has two major tasks: to understand what a university is, and to keep its community working smoothly together. Someone who cannot do both may not be the best person to govern that institution in a time of crisis.