By Nanette Asimov
The surprising nomination Friday of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to lead the University of California was greeted with delight by faculty leaders and UC observers, and with cautious optimism by students and some faculty watchdogs.
Napolitano, 55, will step down from her Cabinet post to become UC’s 20th president and the first woman to head the 10-campus system, pending approval by the regents at their meeting next week in San Francisco.
She would replace Mark Yudof, who has led UC since 2008.
Napolitano would not be the first high-level federal official to head the university. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Hitch was president for eight years, until 1975.
The selection of a nonacademic executive with strong ties to the federal government was hailed as a smart choice by a range of observers, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the wife of Regent Dick Blum, to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said that despite his disagreements with Napolitano, “I have never doubted her integrity, work ethic or commitment to our nation’s security.”
There is also the sense that Napolitano could be UC’s greatest ambassador to the federal government, which the university depends on for research investments and other funding that UC regents consistently say they wish were more generous.
“This is somebody who could have been a Supreme Court justice, attorney general or had any opportunity in the world. Yet she’s chosen to lead the University of California,” said Bob Powell, chairman of UC’s Academic Senate, who led an advisory committee to the presidential search team.
“She knows how to address Congress. She knows how federal agencies work, and she can discuss the value of federal partnerships with public universities — not just UC,” Powell said.
UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi said in a statement she believed that Napolitano “will be a transformational leader for the university.”
“She has run large, complex organizations, and has been a strong advocate for education at all levels from kindergarten to college,” Katehi said. “With her deep background in politics at both the state and federal levels, she will help the UC system navigate this period of tight federal budgets and continuing reductions in funding.”
Katehi noted Napolitano’s role in the Obama administration’s push for immigration reform and her support of federal “Dream Act” legislation, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented college students brought to the country as children.
“These issues are important to us as a university and as a nation, as they enable us to attract the best and the brightest from around the world,” Katehi said
Rep. John Garamendi, an ex-officio member of the Board of Regents while lieutenant governor, called Napolitano a “terrific choice” who could “really change the direction the university is going.”
“The university needs to return to its traditional role as a ladder up for every Californian, wherever they come from, whatever their economic circumstances,” said Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek. “The university has to regain the support of the general public, which has been lost through a series of serious mistakes, (increased) pay scales and tuition among them.”
Garamendi praised Napolitano’s intelligence, “unparalleled” administrative skill and both her political savvy and experience at the state and local level. He noted that she served as an ex-officio member of the Arizona Board of Regents while governor.
Napolitano will be able to connect with the public in a way Yudof failed to do, he said.
“The university does not need an academic administrator,” Garamendi said. “It needs someone from the outside who understand the role the university in a just society — that’s access — and economic vitality.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, an ex-officio member of the regents who played an advisory role in the search, said, “It will be exciting to work with her.”
“Secretary Napolitano has the strength of character and an outsider’s mind that will well serve the students and faculty,” said Brown, who has been more involved with UC than past governors.
His relationship with Yudof is friendly. But a tension between them exists because UC typically raises tuition to cover costs and Brown has urged it to stop the practice or risk losing state funds. About 11 percent of UC’s $24 billion annual budget comes from the state. And at $12,192, UC’s annual tuition is about double what it was five years ago.
A tuition truce was reached for this year, but it remains to be seen how Napolitano will handle the complex issue. Brown has also prodded UC to embrace online education and increase its graduation rate.
Another area of discord is the regents’ insistence on paying executives ever higher compensation, while Brown prefers humbler “servant leadership” in the public system.
Yudof is the eighth-highest-paid public university leader in the country, with a total package of $847,149, including a base salary of $591,084. Napolitano’s pay won’t be revealed until the regents vote.
Robert Shireman, who served as deputy undersecretary of education during President Obama’s first term, called her nomination “a brilliant choice.”
He said UC needs a person who isn’t steeped in the politics of the university but who has experience with complex organizations.
“There’s always the suspicion that (insiders) may have drunk the Kool-Aid too long,” said Shireman, director of California Competes, a think tank in Oakland. “Yet there’s no reason for faculty to believe she wouldn’t come in with an open mind and really listen.”
Napolitano, who grew up in Pittsburgh and Albuquerque, earned a bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. She was a lawyer in Phoenix when, in 1991, she represented law Professor Anita Hill during her sexual harassment testimony against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Two years later, President Bill Clinton named Napolitano as U.S. attorney in Arizona. She was elected the state’s first female attorney general in 1998, and in 2002 she was elected governor.
She was in her second term when Obama nominated her to run the Department of Homeland Security in 2009. The agency was formed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Recently, Napolitano has been embroiled in the political battle over immigration.
UC has its own version of immigration issues that Napolitano will need to address: Rising numbers of out-of-state students, who pay far more in tuition than state residents, have been granted entry in recent years, to the consternation of alumni and others who believe spots at UC campuses should first go to Californians.
Although it isn’t clear how Napolitano will handle that debate, students said they worry that the new president has little understanding of students’ concerns.
“There are some concerns in regards to her background,” said Raquel Morales, president of the UC Student Association and a senior at UC San Diego.
Surprise to students
The selection of Napolitano “was random for a lot of student leaders,” Morales said, meaning it came out of the blue. “So we hope she’ll be proactive in learning about the system and the student experience. One of the main things is meeting with the student leadership.”
Napolitano takes the reins at a time when UC is trying to recover from ugly protest incidents, among them student and faculty protesters being clubbed at UC Berkeley and pepper-sprayed at UCD.
Yudof became a frequent target of those protesters. They painted him as the high-salaried embodiment of what they see as the privatizing of a university by a bloated leadership too cozy with moneyed interests.
Some faculty watchdogs predicted that UC will develop a cozier relationship with the defense industry as a result of having Napolitano at the helm.
“It’s something we need to watch,” said Bob Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations and a frequent UC critic. “If it’s not done transparently, it will be a bad thing.”
Sherry Lansing, who chairs the Board of Regents, called Napolitano a “distinguished and dedicated public servant who has earned trust at the highest, most critical levels of our country’s government.”
Lansing chaired the 10-member presidential search committee and said it unanimously endorsed Napolitano’s nomination.
Her lack of experience as an academic administrator should not be a hinderance, said Powell, a UCD engineering professor.
“She has deep respect for the faculty, and she will listen to what we say,” Powell said in a statement. “She knows that, as the core of what makes UC great, the faculty must have an environment in which they can thrive as scholars and teachers.”
Napolitano joins a growing number of outsiders, including former politicians, hired in part to give universities increased political clout. The American Council on Education last year released a survey found that in 2011, 20 percent of college presidents did not come from academia — up from 13 percent in 2006.
The UC Regents will meet at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus for three days next week, beginning Tuesday. See the agenda at www.bit.ly/1dosqYe
— Enterprise staff writer Cory Golden contributed to this report.