By Janet Napolitano
When I was appointed the 20th president of the University of California, I was a nontraditional choice. My background is in law and public service, not higher education.
I believe my selection was, in good measure, a result of my experience running large, complex institutions such as Homeland Security, the third-largest department of the federal government, and the state government of Arizona.
I knew my learning curve at UC would be steep. But I have faced steep learning curves before and found that the upward trajectory can be accelerated by taking a couple of key steps.
The first is to dive into the budget, the most direct road map to what truly matters to an organization. It shows where opportunity for new priorities or fresh initiatives might lurk.
One early action I instigated is a top-to-bottom efficiency review of the UC Office of the President. My predecessor did a terrific job of trimming and tightening, but there is always room for improvement.
Another essential immediate step is to listen and learn. Much of my first month as president was spent visiting UC campuses as well as the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
I have already learned enough to know we’re here to teach and transmit knowledge, and to research and create knowledge. We do that better than anyone else. We teach for California, and research for the world.
To teach for California, the doors of the university must not simply remain open. They must be knocked off their hinges to allow the maximum number of qualified Californians to gain the education needed to transform their lives — and with that, society itself.
In California, a new generation is knocking at the university’s door. Most of California’s K-12 students are from diverse, underrepresented groups; many are the children of immigrants. They share the same dreams as those who came before them. They represent the future of UC, and of California.
Undocumented students deserve special mention. These Dreamers, as they are often called, are students who would have benefited from a federal Dream Act. They deserve the opportunity to thrive at UC.
I know this issue well. I testified before Congress in support of the Dream Act and in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. When the Dream Act failed to advance in the U.S. Senate, I instituted a plan called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. To date, almost 600,000 students have qualified for DACA.
To help meet the needs of California’s Dreamers, I am setting aside $5 million — right now, for this year — to support these students with resources such as trained advisers, student service centers and financial aid.
Consider this a down payment — one more piece of evidence of our commitment to all Californians.
As California goes, so often goes the world. It’s also true that as the University of California goes, so goes California.
In the early 20th century, for example, UC research led California’s transition from simple farming practices to modern agriculture. Californians, once confined to growing only what the rains would allow, learned to produce more crops with greater yields than the world had ever seen. And we are doing it still.
But California won’t deliver for the world without UC. And UC cannot deliver for California, or the world, without the active engagement of the state.
In the meantime, if we are to remain a premier research university, we must increase our support for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.
Our postdocs are key researchers in our labs, and teachers in our classrooms. Earlier this fall, I announced a $5 million increase in the President’s Fellowship Program for postdoctoral fellows. And to help fill the postdoc pipeline, I announced an additional $5 million to recruit the world’s best graduate students to our campuses.
Graduate students and postdocs are the essential links from teaching for California to researching for the world. They are our future faculty members, our future innovators, our future Nobel laureates.
Consider Randy Schekman, the UC Berkeley professor who received the Nobel Prize this fall in physiology or medicine. Educated at UCLA and Stanford, he has taught at Berkeley for more than three decades — freshman seminars, postdoc supervision, you name it.
Years ago, he started researching yeast and the transport and secretion of proteins in cells. As with all those engaged in basic research, exactly where the quest would lead could not be known as he set out. The potential applications are rarely clear. Where it led eventually was to discoveries that have since changed how the world treats hepatitis B and diabetes, and, soon, perhaps even Alzheimer’s.
To teach for California, and research for the world, UC must thrive as a public enterprise. California and the university that proudly shares its name can lead the way to a society that is more prosperous, more enlightened, different in many ways than what was in the past, but not in its essence.
In this dynamic society, hope, opportunity and innovation will flourish, so long as UC and the state make it so.
At a glance
Quick facts about the University of California system of 10 campuses, five medical centers, research facilities, agricultural and natural resources services:
* First-generation college students make up 45 percent of all UC freshmen. One out of every three UC students identifies as Latino, African-American or American Indian.
* More than 40 percent of all UC students come from a low-income family. Four of UC’s campuses each have more low-income students than all eight Ivy League universities combined.
* The latest Washington Monthly rankings, which rate colleges and universities on how well they are serving the country, ranked UC San Diego at No. 1, UC Riverside at No. 2, UC Berkeley at No. 5 and UCLA at No. 10. (Four other UC campuses also were named in the top 100.)
* Thanks to UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, about half of all UC students pay no tuition or fees. The plan covers those expenses for California resident students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually and qualify for financial aid.
* Almost half of UC’s 2011-12 graduating class had zero student loan debt. For students who did borrow, the average UC debt after graduation was about $19,751, well below the national average of $25,250.
* A total of 60 faculty and researchers affiliated with the University of California have won 61 Nobel Prizes, including in economics, physics, literature and chemistry.
* In 2012, UC’s five medical centers provided $491 million worth of charity care.
* UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources works all over the state to ensure healthy food systems, environments and communities. Efforts include the 4-H and the California Master Gardeners programs.
Source: University of California Office of the President
— Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California and the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is adapted from her recent speech to the Commonwealth Club, the full text of which is at www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/30274.