Los Angeles - Less than two weeks after assuming the presidency of the University of California system on June 16, Mark Yudof departed for a nine-day trip to Israel.
In a higher education system long plagued by reports of Israel-bashing on a handful of its 10 campuses, Yudof’s swift departure for the Jewish State is particularly noteworthy.
Yudof, the 63-year-old former chancellor of the University of Texas system, has deep ties to the Jewish community and to the Jewish state, which he has visited at least six times. Several of the campuses that he now sits at the helm of, however — including the University of California, Berkeley, and most notably, the University of California, Irvine — have a reputation as hotbeds of pro-Palestinian activism where scores of Jewish students have reported feeling intimidated and harassed.
While Yudof’s trip — known as Project Interchange, an educational project of the American Jewish Committee that takes American university leaders to meet their counterparts in Israel — was planned long before Yudof was tapped to head the Golden State’s embattled higher education system, it is indicative of where he stands. Yudof actually co-led the trip, and a week after he returns to the president’s house in Oakland, Calif., he will make his first major public speech as president of the UC system.
The venue? The national conference of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization.
The topic? Free speech on campus.
Yudof — only the second Jewish president in the UC system’s history — is particularly well-suited to address that topic in the abstract, as well as confront it directly in his new position: Yudof is a constitutional lawyer with expertise in First Amendment rights — at UT, where he served as chancellor since 2002, he taught a class at the law school — and much of the controversy on California campuses has revolved around the hazy line between free speech and intimidation.
“Because he’s a constitutional lawyer whose specialty is the First Amendment, he probably knows better than anyone about freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” said David Komerofsky, the executive director of the Hillel at the University of Texas, Austin. “He’s the best example of someone who can be both fully Jewish and part of the rest of society at the same time.”
Indeed, Yudof, who keeps a kosher home with his wife, Judy Yudof — a board member of Hillel International and the past president of the Conservative Movement’s congregational arm, United Synagogue — believes that he can tackle the California campus problems with anti-Israel bashing.
“I’m looking forward to meeting with Jewish groups in California to talk about these issues,” he said in a phone interview from Israel. “I think I can play a significant role in all this. I think the Regents understand that; I wasn’t exactly hiding my Judaism when I arrived.”
Reports of anti-Israel activity on UC campuses date back nearly a decade. In 2002, UC Berkeley made headlines with a pro-Palestinian English course taught by then graduate student Snehal Shingavi, a leader of the campus group “Students for Justice in Palestine.” As a result, the Zionist Organization of America demanded that the state of California slash funding for UC Berkeley. That same year, Berkeley’s campus Hillel building was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti amid large-scale protests by pro-Palestinian students.
Most recently, UC Irvine has emerged as a locus of anti-Israel activity. In 2004, the Zionist Organization of America filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, charging that there had been a pattern of campus antisemitism. In November 2007, the Department of Education dismissed those claims, saying they were unsupported.
Jewish groups have roundly chided UC Irvine’s chancellor, Michael Drake, for failing to adequately condemn anti-Israel activity on campus. Tensions came to a head last March when Drake spoke at a national Hillel summit. At that time, 41 students sent a letter to the president of Hillel, Wayne Firestone, blasting the decision to invite Drake to speak.
On the heels of the Hillel summit, five Jewish students at UC Irvine issued a statement contending that reports of a hostile, antisemitic climate there have been exaggerated. In response, 20 Jewish students issued a counter press release refuting the five students’ claim and condemning Drake’s inaction. “We are deeply disappointed that Chancellor Drake continues to refuse to condemn ongoing hate-filled programs and speeches on campus that demonize Israel and Jews,” the release said.
Yudof, however, seems supportive of Drake. “I think we have a fine chancellor in Michael Drake,” he said. He added that he had spoken with the controversial chancellor, who was also on the Project Interchange Israel trip, and tried to explain how anti-Jewish hate speech feels to the Jewish people. “I think I’m in a position that I can really give him good advice on how to handle these matters,” he said.
Yudof himself has been the subject of antisemitism on campus. During his stint as president of the University of Minnesota, Yudof said, he was followed around by a man who passed out antisemitic literature and asked at a public forum when Yudof was going to give gentiles a salary break, as he’d been favoring the Jews.
“I listened to him and told him it was dead wrong,” Yudof recounted. “It’s important to be as clear as one can be about these issues. If we can’t shut it down, we need to be very clear about speaking out against it.”
Even without the campus troubles to clear up, Yudof will have no easy road ahead. In the broader picture, he is coming into the system at a time when the state of California is facing a budget deficit of some $10 billion. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut the UC budget by $100 million. But according to observers who worked with Yudof in Texas, he has a history of faring well when lobbying the legislature.
“Because of the budget, the university is always needing good advocates, and he did as well as anybody,” said Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at UT Austin. “He understood what the university was all about, its intellectual and social mission, and at the same time was pretty savvy about finding support outside of its walls.”